Skip Navigation

A 'Commission on Radical Islam’ Could Lead to a New McCarthy Era

The president-elect’s suggestions have stirred fears about religious discrimination.

November 18, 2016

Cross-posted on The New York Times.

The president-elect’s suggestions during his campaign to ban Muslims from entering the country and to possibly establish a registry of Muslims have stirred fears about religious discrimination.

But a more easily realized and less publicized proposal by Donald J. Trump may also threaten civil liberties. That is a Commission on Radical Islam, which his campaign website says would “identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.” As hate crimes against American Muslims soar, such a commission could further incite distrust and undermine Muslim leaders and civil society.

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush were careful to avoid tarring all Muslims with the terrorism brush. Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush visited a mosque to warn against the harassment of American Muslims and underline the need to respect Islam. Mr. Obama has sent the same message, refusing to even use the term “radical Islam.” This does not mean that the United States government has simply ignored the belief systems of terrorists. To the contrary, there are reams of research and several congressional reports on the topic. It seems unlikely that a Commission on Radical Islam would add anything.

Mr. Trump’s commission would be charged with identifying “warning signs of radicalization,” allowing it to veer easily into examining political and religious views. Both the New York Police Department and the F.B.I. have said that indicators of terrorism included political activism and signs of Muslim religiosity, such as growing a beard, wearing a head scarf or giving up smoking and drinking. Although these ideas have been thoroughly debunked by research, they continue to be influential and could serve as a basis for categorizing tens of thousands of American Muslims as potential terrorists requiring monitoring by law enforcement (or worse).

Research has also found little evidence of support for terrorism among American Muslims. James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., said, “The threat here focuses primarily on troubled souls in America who are being inspired or enabled online to do something violent.” This makes the proposed commission’s mandate of ferreting out networks that support radicalization sound like a witch hunt that could ensnare politically active American Muslims and the civil society groups that work to protect the community’s rights.

That seems to be what Newt Gingrich, one of the president-elect’s top advisers, has in mind. Earlier this year, Mr. Gingrich called for a new House Un-American Activities Committee to deal with “Islamic supremacists.” That notorious committee’s hearings and the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy into suspected Communists represented some of the most severe political repression in American history and destroyed lives. Today, as falsehoods are spread quickly on the internet and accepted as true, this risk may be even more acute.

These fears are not theoretical. Conspiracy theorists and pseudo-experts poised to peddle lies about prominent Muslim officials and groups have garnered support in both Congress and Mr. Trump’s inner circle.

In 2012, five members of Congress asked the State Department’s inspector general to investigate the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the department, citing family ties of Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s closest aide. (The alleged connections were so convoluted that that they inspired a “Daily Show” sketch.) This summer, Senator Ted Cruz held a hearing in which a witness smeared the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella organization for Muslim groups, claiming it had links to terrorist groups. The same witness also insinuated that the two Muslim members of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, supported terrorism because they attended the group’s events, as had the Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson.

The F.B.I. has a policy of marginalizing the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. The F.B.I.’s stance, which it claims is based on vague concerns over potential connections to terrorism, is difficult to understand given the bureau’s broad powers to seize the assets of any organization supporting terrorism. So unfounded is the F.B.I.’s stance that it has been resisted by its own field offices and the Justice Department, and the council is a frequent partner of local police departments and other agencies.

Baseless insinuations about Muslim groups and individuals are a regular feature on Breitbart, the website run by Stephen Bannon, chief strategist to the incoming president.

Like many campaign promises, Mr. Trump’s commission may never become reality. But it would be far harder to challenge in court than a Muslim ban or registry. It must be vigorously resisted as a threat not only to American Muslims, but all Americans who dread a return to McCarthyism.

(Photo: Thinkstock)