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)