The Cable

‘The U.S. Constitution Does Not Have to Be a Suicide Pact’

Once-fringe views about Islam and radicalization are becoming more mainstream.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10:  Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) participates in a Senate Foreign relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing from us government officials on the situation in Ukraine.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) participates in a Senate Foreign relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing from us government officials on the situation in Ukraine. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the same day an apparently politically-motivated non-Muslim opened fire on Republican lawmakers playing baseball, a Senate committee held a hearing to explore Islamic extremism — and figure out ways to combat it.

The hearing, in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, highlighted how once-fringe views about Islam and extremism have entered the Republican mainstream, even as security officials grapple with the rise of non-Islamic extremism.

“The U.S. Constitution does not have to be a suicide pact,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), the panel’s chairman, suggesting that an overly expansive interpretation of constitutional freedoms could be dangerous. For his tenth hearing on extremism — all of which have focused solely on the threat from radicalized Muslims — Johnson called a panel of witnesses who painted a dire picture of the threat Islam poses to Western society.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of Dutch parliament and controversial critic of Islam who has referred to it as a “cult of death,” said, approvingly, that “Germany has closed some mosques.”

Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter now known for her criticism of traditional Islam, criticized Amazon for selling a book that quotes Islamic tradition to justify domestic violence. “We aren’t doing enough to police these ideas,” she said.

John Lenczowski, now a professor, worked in Soviet affairs under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He raised the spectre of “civilizational jihad,” citing the risk of an impending Islamic takeover of Western society, warning of the dangers of sharia law and of the widely debunked “no-go zones” in Europe.

“Sharia law may not have made the kind of inroads in American society that it has in other parts of the world,” said Lenczowski, “but there are plenty of enclaves in Europe where they have established a parallel society.”

“It is being done under the protection of religious freedoms,” said Lenczowski.

Johnson said that he decided to call the hearing after he read an April interview with Ali in the Wall Street Journal in which she discussed her latest report, “The Challenge of Dawa.” In that report, Ali calls for a return to Cold War-era ideological screening, surveillance of mosques, a registry for Muslim immigrants, and for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a foreign terrorist organization.

Ali has also previously argued that Western democracies are hindered in their fight against terrorism due to the broad freedoms and protections that their constitutions mandate.

Many of those notions have become increasingly prevalent during and after the successful presidential campaign of President Donald Trump, who promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States, floated the creation of a Muslim registry, and selected advisors with a history of Islamophobic remarks.

But critics, including Muslim groups and plenty of Democrats on the Senate panel, argue that such measures would alienate American Muslims and play into the Islamic State’s narrative that Islam is at war with the West.

“The singling out of Muslims in this manner only breeds fear, cements a narrative of a cosmic war between Islam against the West, and flies in the face of actual trends of domestic violent extremism,” said the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy organization, in a submitted statement. “All violent extremists, whether it’s ISIS or white supremacist terrorists, seek to accomplish the very same goal: to divide our world along binary lines.”

The panel’s exclusive focus on Islamic radicalization — which seems to be mirrored at the Department of Homeland Securityalso gives short shrift to the real threat of extremist violence from other quarters in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

According to the April 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on countering violent extremism, far right extremists killed 106 people in the United States between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016. In the same period, Islamic extremists killed 119 people.

“We face a threat from a variety of sources on radicalization, including white supremacists, eco-terrorists, ISIS, al Qaeda sympathizers,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the panel’s ranking member.

She used her only witness slot to call Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and he refuted many of the points made by the other witnesses. He said he had never seen any evidence of no-go zones in Europe or that sharia is challenging U.S. constitutional law.

The fight against extremism should be based on “factual and truthful analysis of radicalization,” emphasized Leiter. “Radicalization is not occurring in mosques.”

Referring to sharia and other Islamic teachings brought up by the other witnesses, Leiter continued, “It is deeply mistaken and harmful to equate core Islamic concepts that are not inherently violent with extremist interpretations of these principles.”

Asked if the committee had any plans to hold a hearing examining right-wing extremism, Johnson’s office declined to comment.

Correction, June 15, 2017: Asra Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter. A previous version of this article stated that she was a former journalist.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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