The hearings on alleged Islamic radicalization inside the United States, chaired by Rep. King of New York, are being compared to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the committees chaired by Joe McCarthy in the cold, dark days of the 1940s and 1950s. The comparisons are apt to the extent that the hearings past and present blur the distinction between dissent and subversion. While Muslim activists today fear a growing assumption of guilt by religious association with terrorists and insist on a presumption of both innocence and loyalty by their fellow Americans, the real issue, implicit in King's concern with "radicalization," is the right of American Muslims to dissent against American foreign policy and the state of the U.S. in general. In the Forties and Fifties, American Marxists self-evidently dissented from American economic and social policy, and in many cases opposed the country's explicitly anti-Marxist foreign policy. As far as McCarthy and HUAC were concerned, all such dissent was inextricably linked with a treasonous subservience to the Soviet Union and the "international communist conspiracy." It was obvious all along that there was an "anti-Stalinist Left" that had no more love for the Soviets than they did for capital, but the distinction was lost on the investigating committees, for whom any degree Marxism was prima facie un- or anti-American. Today, American Muslims may be presumed to oppose their government's support for Israel and authoritarian rulers throughout the Muslim world, while many probably also deplore the country's perceived moral decline with as much disgust as their Christian, Jewish or Mormon counterparts. Under "war on terror" conditions, with the "enemy" presumed to desire the imposition of a global caliphate of shari'a tyranny, dissent against American policies may be too easily equated with support with the terrorist caliphate agenda. The real risk involved in the King hearings is the likelihood that Muslims' exercise of their constitutional right to dissent will make them objects of suspicion and surveillance. Just as the McCarthyites presumed that any Marxist wanted to make America subject to Moscow, Kingites, if such a group emerges, may presume that any failure by American Muslims to endorse Zionism or American foreign policy in toto proves them to be terrorist sympathizers if not terrorist conspirators.
Joe McCarthy didn't invent this impulse. It dates back at least to World War I, when American intervention in support of Great Britain made traditionally anglophobic Irish and German communities subject to surveillance and vilification. The current Islamophobia in America is reminiscent of that earlier hysteria, since Muslims have as much reason or right to be zionophobic, if you'll excuse the awkward term, as Irish-Americans once had to be anglophobic, and neither group should have had loyalty to a nation it despised made a condition for loyalty to its adopted homeland. The McCarthyite element in the present hysteria is the presumption of conspiracy, though Rep. King probably allows Muslims more opportunity to prove their innocence than McCarthy or HUAC allowed Marxists. As during the Cold War, the best proof of loyalty will probably be a readiness to name names, and foreign-policy dissidents are most likely to be thrown under the bus in such cases.
Deplore the unfairness of it all all you like, but objectivity requires us not to dismiss out of hand the question of whether any group of Americans due to ethnic, religious or ideological orientation has a special obligation to prove their loyalty to their fellow citizens. The King hearings irritate many people, including many non-Muslims, because they target a religious and in most cases an ethnic minority, but the idea motivating them is no different from what might motivate congressional hearings on the militia movement or a militant Christian right. At issue in all such cases, actual or theoretical, is where or by whom lines can be drawn distinguishing radical dissent from subversion or terrorism. Because Islam is a pre-existing category, King's investigation, despite whatever disclaimers he's offered, looks to many like a singling-out of a minority population for "who they are" rather than "what they do." Bigotry is presumed to lurk beneath King's superficial concern with radicalization. But to the extent that Islam is a value system, "what they do" is always part of the equation, and always subject at least to appraisal by the rest of us. American Muslims should be presumed innocent of loyalty to any foreign conspiracy until individuals are proven guilty, but Muslims are no more entitled to a presumption of absolute innocence than any other religious or ideological faction in the country. That is, there should be no inhibition against discussing whether religious commitments can compromise the political commitments necessary to a constitutional democratic republic. Democracy is a matter of mutual accountability. Muslims should not be judged falsely, but that doesn't mean they should never be judged.