Peter King’s Radical Hearings on “Radicalization”

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held the latest in a series of hearings that focus on the “radicalization” of Muslim-Americans.  This hearing focused primarily on the threat of Islamic “radicalization” within the United States prison system.

This hearing is the latest attempt by King to share his own radical ideology, a mixture of Islamaphobia and fear mongering.  In his opening statement of the committee hearing, King exclaimed that the danger of Islamic “radicalization” in U.S. prisons is “real and present,” and that radicalized Islamic inmates are seeking to destroy the homeland upon their release from prison.

With these comments and the purpose of the hearing in mind, I have a few problems with the goals of King and or the committee hearing as a whole.

King’s use of the term “radicalization” is skewed and needs to be looked at more closely.  Radicalization is a term that implies changes from passiveness or activism to more revolutionary, militant, or extremist behavior.  It does not always mean radical behavior of a violent nature. It can simply imply that one’s religious practices are outside of the mainstream.  It is a term that applies only to a few inmates, and to single out all inmates who practice Islam and the general population of Muslim-Americans is rather misguided.

King seems to associate the term directly with violent acts, and connects the term directly to Islamic ideology.  Rather than focusing on acts of violence, he focuses on the ideology of individuals who commit rare cases of radicalized violence.  He ignores the other motivations or histories of these “radicalized” inmates that may drive them to violent actions, and instead attributes the problem to their ideology.  The problem that should be focused on by King and the committee is what dysfunctions from within the prison system lead a few rare individuals to seek radically violent actions upon their release from prison.  By singling out Islamic “radicalization,” King and the committee ignore all other types of group fanaticism that exist within other religions and prison gangs.

Secondly, King and the committee are ignoring a far larger collection of groups that are “radicalized” and typically more violent in their nature.  As of 2003, it was estimated that between 17-20% of all inmates are Muslim.  Of this 17-20%, it is safe to say that a very tiny portion of these inmates were “radicalized,” and an even smaller percentage sought to commit acts of violence upon release.  According to Purdue University Professor Bert Useem who testified before the committee (and was conveniently ignored by many of the Republican committee members and cut off on multiple occasions by King) 178 Muslim-Americans since the events of 9/11 have committed acts of terrorism related violence.  In 12 of these 178 cases, there is some evidence of radicalization behind bars, and there have been zero suicide attacks (or attempted suicide attacks) by former prison inmates.   Those statistics speak for themselves and point to the misguided direction of the committee hearing.

As of 1999, the percentage of inmates that were in prison gangs was 24.7% and growing.  Several of the witnesses and committee members tried to distinguish between recruitment of gang members in prison and Islamic recruitment by saying that gang members are motivated by selfish goals and do not have the possibility for overseas aid after release.  While there is some truth to this, the argument that gang members do not seek to strike fear in their community in a revolutionary, militant, or extremist fashion is untrue.  Gang violence, drug trafficking, and crime is a much larger and more widespread problem in major U.S. cities, and has been for decades.  According to the FBI, there were over 7,000 arrests made for violent gang activity in 2010 alone.

By their very nature, gangs seek to “radicalize” inmates and violence is highly prevalent both inside prison and upon release from prison.  Not to mention, gangs are responsible for a large portion of the drug trafficking in the U.S., and are usually engaged in other illegal monetary ventures such as gambling and gun trafficking.

It seems strange to me that King and the committee are focusing on a tiny portion of inmates who mistakenly interpret a religious ideology that, for most Muslim inmates, helps give them a positive new identity, a sense of structure, and a healthy set of guidelines to live their lives by, rather than focusing on the “radicalization” of prison gangs. The discriminatory nature of the King hearings  and the committee’s singling out of a single ideological group, rather than focusing on stopping the “radicalization” of all inmates that seek group structure while in prison, is a contradiction of our core values and civil rights policies. .

Finally, the committee hearing did very little to offer possible solutions, in terms of policy, to the supposed problem they were attempting to address.  The majority of the hearing was spent focusing on a few isolated cases of extremist behavior that originated from within the prison system, including the case of Kevin James, leader of the radical J.I.S. group, and his 2005 bomb plot.  One solution that was offered and focused on by King and couple of his witnesses was the vetting of religious chaplains within the prison system.

However, in a report by the U.S. Justice Department conducted in 2004, the problem of the prison system failing to protect against infiltration by religious extremists was not due to radical chaplains, but rather extremist inmates running their own worship services.  This was precisely the case with Kevin James, who experienced no outside influence of radicalization, but was rather an extremist product of the prison gang culture.

With this in mind, it seems to me that a bigger focus should be a vetting of the reading material that is allowed to prisoners, and a closer monitoring of the religious services that are held for all ideologies.  Singling out one religion only alienates an entire faith group and creates unwanted divisions among the American people.  The focus of this hearing will only create distrust between the Muslim-American community and the government.

With all of the evidence presented in last Wednesday’s hearing, especially that of Professor Useem, it is hard to conclude that the U.S. prison system is breeding widespread radical religious behavior that is of grave concern to the government and the American people.  These hearings are evidence of King’s push for neo-McCarthyism.  It is reckless and misguided for King to conduct a hearing that essentially promotes the use of profiling based on ideology.  Condemnation is not welcome.