The King hearing on “Muslim radicalization” and moral clarity on terrorism

New York Rep. Peter King is planning to launch his chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee with a hearing into “Muslim radicalization” in the United States, the process by which Muslim Americans become radicalized to the point of supporting international Islamist terrorism or, worse still, committing or attempting to commit, terrorist acts here at home against our own country. It’s a very serious topic and a good subject for an important congressional hearing, but there is every reason to fear that this may be a counterproductive rather than useful exercise, possibly disastrously so. So far we don’t know much about the potential date, content or witness list of the hearing, although Steven Emerson is enraged at his apparent exclusion (more on this at the end of this essay), but King’s upcoming appearance on a new TV show hosted by probably the most extreme anti-Muslim fanatic in the United States, Brigitte Gabriel (who claims things like “Arabs have no souls”), about whom I have written on the Ibishblog in the past, is the worst possible indication about where this all might be going. The interview was taped on November 10 and will be broadcast on February 5.

The recent massacre in Tucson by Jared Lee Loughner might, one would have thought, have reminded King and others that there are many different kinds of Americans who can get radicalized to the point of violence by an almost endless plethora of ideologies, including left-wing radicalism like the weathermen of old, environmentalism, anti-abortion fanaticism, homophobia, white supremacy, Christian identity gobbledygook, black nationalism, KKK ideology and, of course, the latest addition to the paranoid and sometimes violent style of American politics, the tea partyers.

While this is not to say that there isn’t a growing problem with ad hoc radicalization, especially through the Internet, of young Western Muslims, including in the United States, and a real potential for violence as a consequence, it is to say that there are a lot of other dangers and pretending that this is the only source of potential mayhem and violence, or even the main one currently facing our country from an internal, domestic source, seems particularly misguided after Tucson. But King has been on the hobbyhorse about “disloyal” Muslim Americans for a long time, and now that he has his chairmanship, he has his bully pulpit too.

But King and many of the other most vocal alarmists about homegrown Islamist terrorists and the “Islamic threat,” expressed in a generalized way that promotes fear and hatred of the Muslim American community in general and indiscriminately, are carrying some serious baggage with which they will, ultimately, have to deal. In fact, a lot of them have a history of sympathy for and support of terrorist organizations they either identified with ethnically or ideologically, or whose targets they despised enough to welcome or at least defend their terrorism. In other words, there is a very long history of double standards on the question of terrorism, and most assuredly a lack of moral clarity, from not only Chairman King but many of his friends and supporters in this “Muslim radicalization” movement.

Let’s begin with King himself. In fact, he has a very long history as an ardent supporter of the IRA and its American front organization, Noraid. While his stance on the IRA toughened in 2005 and he became a convert to supporting the peace process and disbanding the organization, historically his support was pretty unequivocal. As the New York Sun noted:

He forged links with leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and in America he hooked up with Irish Northern Aid, known as Noraid, a New York based group that the American, British, and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA. At a time when the IRA’s murder of Lord Mountbatten and its fierce bombing campaign in Britain and Ireland persuaded most American politicians to shun IRA-support groups, Mr. King displayed no such inhibitions. He spoke regularly at Noraid protests and became close to the group’s publicity director, the Bronx lawyer Martin Galvin, a figure reviled by the British. Mr. King’s support for the IRA was unequivocal. In 1982, for instance, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: “We must per can of the pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.”

The Sun also pointed out that, “Much of the conventional weaponry and a great deal of the money necessary for IRA violence came from Irish-American sympathizers. Mr. King’s advocacy of the IRA’s cause encouraged that flow and earned him the deep-seated hostility of the British and Irish governments.”

There couldn’t, after all, have been anything philosophically in common between the IRA, an avowedly Marxist, globalist and internationalist terrorist movement, and the conservative Republican congressman from New York. It seems a pretty fair bet that the only thing drawing King to Noraid and other IRA front organizations which he was so enthusiastic about was pure ethnic tribalism. He’s an Irishman; he wanted Ireland united and entirely free of any form of British control; and if terrorism was part of the strategy, so be it. By any means necessary, as they say.

This history makes it especially difficult to stomach his blanket condemnations against the Arab and Muslim American communities generally when he has such a specific record of supporting what was at the time, by any conceivable definition, a terrorist organization. I suppose one could argue that the IRA was at war with the United Kingdom and not the United States, so the element of disloyalty is mitigated. Well, the same logic could speciously be applied to supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah, who would also claim to war with only Israel but not the United States. This accusation of disloyalty because of support for terrorism would have to be then reserved those rare supporters of Al Qaeda and other so-called “Salafist-Jihadist” groups that have openly declared war on both the United States and the governments and societies of the entire Arab and Muslim world, and have actually and deliberately attacked American interests directly. However, numerous organizations around the world that have never directly or deliberately attacked American interests have been placed on the State Department terrorism list from its outset and remain there. It’s partly a matter of cooperation with foreign governments that feel threatened by those organizations and partly a recognition that certain acts constitute terrorism no matter who the culprit or victims might be.

And, it must be acknowledged that the IRA was never itself actually placed on the State Department “designated foreign terrorist organizations” list, which was first published in the late 1990s. That list was specifically pursuant to the 1996 “antiterrorism and effective death penalty act,” which made otherwise lawful “material support” for organizations to be designated as foreign terrorist groups by the State Department a serious felony. However, in earlier reports, the State Department described the IRA quite accurately as a “deadly terrorist group unconcerned about innocent bystanders,” and it was formally considered a terrorist organization by the United States in the same way that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and many other leftist and insurgent groups during the Cold War had been. In the end, there can be no doubt that it was largely political pressure from King and numerous other politically powerful Irish-Americans that kept the IRA, although not all of it’s more extreme splinter groups, off the formal, criminalized State Department foreign terrorist organization material support list once it was issued in the late 90s.

In other words, this all reeks of hypocrisy of the worst variety, and of the idea that terrorism by my friends is okay or at least understandable, but it makes your friends, or at your least compatriots or coreligionists, the biggest villains in the entire world, unspeakable demons outside the realm of normal humanity, nothing less than homo sacer.

Another example of this outrageous double-standard, in which my terrorists friends are just fine but other terrorists are uniquely evil, is the growing constituency in the United States, especially in Congress of all places, in favor of the bizarre and violent Iranian terrorist cult, the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). It’s been on the formal US State Department designated list of foreign terrorist organizations from the outset, because of numerous terrorist acts inside Iran including car bombings, assassinations and other atrocities.

Prominent American MEK defenders or supporters include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and anti-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush, Francis Townsend. Self-appointed terrorism experts such as Daniel Pipes are also big fans. In Congress, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner (probably the most enthusiastic leader of the effort), Dana Rohrabacher, Ted Poe, Judy Chu, Mike Coffman, Lacy Clay and Edolphus Towns, among others, have urged its removal from the terrorism list.

The MEK’s psychopathic ideological combination of Marxism, feminism and Islamism is primarily characterized by a bizarre personality cult centered around Maryam Rajavi, but the organization may well be led in practice by its former central public figure, her husband Massoud Rajavi. Strongly supported by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the MEK was largely based in Iraq and conducted numerous terrorist attacks in Iran aimed at the regime, and the society in general. Since the American invasion of Iraq, its main redoubt has been Camp Ashraf in Diyala province. The United States has been hard-pressed to decide what to do about the MEK in Camp Ashraf. Iran has repeatedly accused the United States of using the MEK, operating out of that base, to conduct attacks inside Iran, but has provided virtually no evidence to demonstrate any such thing. But there’s no doubt that the United States has used the MEK as a source of intelligence on Iranian realities and activities, and, while disarming it, has also provided it protection within the camp. Consistent speculation has held that the MEK is regarded as a bargaining chip by the United States, and possibly by the new Iraqi government, vis-à-vis Iran, which has traditionally regarded it as its most threatening armed domestic enemy.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the sinister characteristics of the MEK’s ideology, which reminds me more of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge than anything else I can think of. Rajavi claims mystical powers and connections to prophets and messiahs; has instructed her followers to divorce all of their spouses and maintains an extremely bizarre attitude towards gender, personal and sexual relations; conducts cult-like, quasi-Maoist, “self confession” sessions in which members are encouraged to confess their supposed flaws and sins; and the group is said to practice torture and various abuses against its members in order to maintain organizational discipline. Many reports would suggest that’s the least of it, and that while we may not be dealing here with the world’s weirdest organization — that title probably belongs to the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” a Christian fundamentalist gang of absolute lunatics in Uganda — it’s almost certainly somewhere in the very top tier. (In 1977, the virtuoso Spanish surrealist film director Luis Buñuel probably thought he was making a great joke by naming a terrorist organization in his final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, “The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus,” but by 2011 it distressingly doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous anymore as it must have then.)

However, since the MEK’s terrorist actions and political agitation are aimed at overthrowing the properly despised government in Tehran — although their own rule would undoubtedly be almost unimaginably worse — certain American public figures, commentators and members of Congress have begun to champion their cause. That they are plainly completely insane and also terrorist by any definition of the term is beside the point. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least not my enemy. If they want to use terrorism and other despicable tactics to destabilize the government in Tehran, so be it. Let’s take them off the terrorism list, if not hold fundraising events and provide material support once, or indeed even before (as it can be argued a number of these people already have), they are removed from it.

And then there’s the little matter of the anti-Castro Cuban terrorists who have been the subject of so much public support from prominent Americans over many years. Two names come to mind in particular: Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Bosch is the leader of the so-called Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, which the FBI has described as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization.” It is not disputed that in 2008 Bosch told Dade County criminal attorney Stewart Adelstein that he was responsible for bombing Cubana Flight 455, a civilian Douglas DC-8 traveling from Barbados and Jamaica containing 48 passengers and 25 crew, resulting in 73 fatalities and no survivals. Bosch, Carriles and two others were tried in Venezuela, where the attack was apparently planned, with two men sentenced to 20-year terms, Bosch released on a technicality, and Carriles fleeing the county for Miami while awaiting sentencing. Bosch defended his brutal terrorism with the infamous claim that, “All of Castro’s planes are warplanes.” Sound familiar? To Middle Eastern ears, it certainly should.

Once back in Miami in 1987, Bosch was held for six months on a parole violation and then released, where he has been living unmolested ever since. The campaign to pardon Bosch was led by the new incoming House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and her ally and then political campaign manager, and future governor of Florida and presidential brother, Jeb Bush. Ros-Lehtinen reportedly helped organize an “Orlando Bosch Day,” of all things, in his support. She has also defended one Velentin Hernández, a Cuban exile convicted of murdering Luciano Nieves who was advocating negotiations with the Castro regime. Her attitude towards violence against objectionable political leaders was characterized by her statement to the BBC that, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.” She claimed that the filmmakers had doctored her statements, but releases of the original unedited recordings demonstrated her calling at least twice for the assassination of Castro, and confirmed the veracity of the original quote.

As for Posada Carriles, AKA “Bambi,” a former CIA operative, he has been convicted in absentia of the Flight 455 bombing, a series of bomb attacks mainly in 1997 on fashionable Cuban nightclubs and hotels, and various other crimes including the attempted assassination of Castro in Panama in 2000. There is virtually no doubt that Carriles is an unrepentant and habitual terrorist, and has plausibly claimed that Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), was well aware of his activities but that the two agreed never to discuss them. To say that Carriles has never been properly investigated, charged or held to account by the US authorities, which it is bound by international treaties (particularly the 1971 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation) to do, would be an understatement. He has been briefly held on immigration charges, but was released in 2007, and a judge has ruled that he may not be extradited to Venezuela, where he is wanted for some of these crimes, on the grounds that he may be tortured there. Special rendition for some, special protection for others. The US has sought to deport him, but unsurprisingly no country will accept such an individual. Suffice it to say that some terrorists go to Guantánamo Bay, and some don’t.

Carriless still faces charges of immigration fraud and of lying to US authorities about his criminal activities, but this is in the context of his potential deportation process, not a full-blown criminal investigation into his apparently extensive terrorist career. And while CANF denies all knowledge of and involvement in his crimes, in 1997 the organization issued a statement that has been characterized as “supporting un-conditionally all terrorist attacks against Cuba,” and its chairman at the time, Francisco Hernandez, stated that “We do not think of these as terrorist actions”. Of course not. Meanwhile, Carriless openly boasts of his participation in the 1997 bombing campaign and merely faces immigration charges and is not, as far as I can tell, incarcerated in any form at the moment.

The point is not that Peter King, the MEK defenders, or Rep. Ross Lehtinen are fans of terrorism, should be held in any kind of contempt or subject to federal investigation or any other aspersions against their characters. These facts should not be held against them as human beings or as political leaders. But there is an important point to be made, which is that it is extremely difficult for any human being to hold to a single standard that opposes terrorism in all its forms: the use by, at the very, least non-state — and many would argue also state — actors of attacks on civilian targets in order to achieve political goals. It’s very easy to get worked up about people who use these despicable tactics against one’s own country or one’s own friends, relatives, co-religionists or compatriots. It’s also very easy to rationalize the unfortunate necessity, or perhaps understandable if deplorable excesses, of such actions by those whose causes, or sometimes merely identities, one sympathizes or affiliates with. There is much more to be said about the King hearings as more becomes known about them. Right now, it doesn’t look good because Rep. King has long held a jaundiced view of the Muslim American community generally as essentially disloyal or at least insufficiently loyal. He’s wrong about that, as I’ll demonstrate in a future posting very soon.

There’s also the question of who is going to be testifying, and not. Self-appointed terrorism expert and chronic errorist Steven Emerson (who blamed the first World Trade Center bombing on Serbs when it fact it was Islamists, and then blamed the Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City on Islamists when they had nothing to do with it) apparently is not. He and his supporters have tried to imply that he somehow anticipated or predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but a review of his work up to that point shows nothing of the kind: he did warn that there was a growing movement in support of Muslim extremism in the United States, but nothing I can find (admittedly I haven’t been able to bring myself to an exhaustive reading of all of his ramblings) in his pre-9/11 work suggests any understanding of the kind of international Al Qaeda scheme dreamed up in Afghanistan, plotted in Hamburg, organized in various parts of the United States and funded from various as yet to be fully determined sources. In other words, he was as unprepared for such an assault as everybody else even though he was raising a ruckus about a rather different sort of Muslim extremist. There are one or two people who could plausibly claim to have anticipated the 9/11 attacks, particularly Rick Rescorla, but not Emerson.

Emerson’s bizarre and angry letter to King, which is worth reading merely as an indication of his emotional condition and questionable self-opinion, protesting the fact that he was not going to be included in the list of witnesses can only be regarded as a good thing. That doesn’t mean that King is necessarily going to be presenting a fair hearing representing multiple and contending different points of view; allowing those who would severely criticize the American Muslim community in general and unfair terms to be pitted against Muslim Americans who can contradict these claims with eloquence and veracity, or disgruntled former law enforcement officials or Bush administration appointees and other opponents of the Obama administration to use the opportunity to score political points, but also with a fair hearing given to currently serving law enforcement and counterterrorism officials or Obama administration policymakers. That’s what a fair hearing would look like: panels of credible individuals from different positions and perspectives making their cases respectively. King may, in fact, produce such a hearing, and Emerson’s exclusion is certainly a good sign, but forgive us for not holding our breaths.

But one thing that the buildup to the King hearings demonstrates is that the challenge for all of us — Arab and Muslim Americans; Irish-Americans; Cuban-Americans; Iranian Americans; and those who hate, possibly with the best of reasons, regimes such as the ones in Havana and Tehran — is to maintain a simple, single standard when it comes to terrorism: attacks deliberately targeting civilians for political purposes are unacceptable. It’s not a defensible position that my friends and relatives get to do this because of their special circumstances whereas yours don’t. There is no moral clarity in distinguishing between the legal, moral and political status of what are obviously terrorist organizations or acts on the grounds of agreement with their political goals, or alleged lack of alternatives.

Inconsistency, and indeed hypocrisy, from those who have been most angrily pointing the finger at entire communities rather than specifically those Arab and Muslim Americans who have been sympathetic and occasionally even materially supportive of Islamist terrorists (and who should be criticized and, when warranted, prosecuted for that) is simply not acceptable. A good long look in the mirror of those who had, or still have, no problem with the IRA, the MEK, and the likes of Orlando Bosch and Luis Carriless is essential if there is to be any hope of clarity on the question of terrorism as a legal, moral and ethical matter. If it’s simply a tactic that we are happy or at least willing to see employed by our friends or against our enemies, then let us be honest and say so openly. But if we are really and actually sincerely against terrorism — and I am against it in all its forms by whoever carries it out and for whatever cause — then let us be clear, consistent and honest about that, for goodness sake. Otherwise questions regarding radicalization, terrorism, political violence, extremism, etc. will merely be exercises in political grandstanding, point-scoring and demagoguery. They will make matters worse rather than better, and make our country less rather than more secure.