Dance, monkey, dance.
That's what the United States has long shouted at immigrants and ethnic groups suspected of being disloyal. The nation asks its newcomers to perform in meaningless ways to "prove" they belong here.
The dancers change, but not the dance. Because the U.S. is continually incorporating immigrants, the perceived threat of betrayal is constant. This week, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) will call the tune on Capitol Hill, with hearings meant to test the loyalty of American Muslims.
But proving loyalty in the affirmative is not so easy. The primary proof is in what people don't do: The loyal ones are those who don't stab you in the back, don't sell you out.
And loyalty — an abstract attachment to a person, institution, cause or nation — like any abstraction is hard to measure. Proving it — especially by pronouncement in front of a Senate committee — is a little like proving that you're sorry. You can apologize all you want, but at some point the offended party is just going to have to trust you mean it.
But that doesn't keep self-appointed arbiters of national loyalty such as King from popping up from time to time to make minorities dance.
As chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, King is ostensibly investigating the radicalization of American Muslims. From all accounts, what the gruff Long Islander seeks is a show trial in which American Muslims will have the opportunity to make, in his words, "full throated, intense" denunciations of all terrorist activities. In other words, he wants them to prove their loyalty to the United States.
To be clear, King doesn't think all Muslims are a threat to the U.S. He says he has "no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good people." But he wants Muslim "leaders" to condemn any potential bad apples.
Spotlighting ethnic or racial "leaders" has long been a preoccupation of Anglo journalists, academics and politicians. Call it the "Take Me to Your Leader" game. It is predicated on the false assumption that ethnic, racial or religious groups — the usual "minority" categories — function as organized entities whose members take their moral and political cues from group leaders. It reduces the diversity of the groups to the opinions of their putative leader or leaders. You want to know how Asian Americans think about an issue? Call up the Chinese American on the city council or the head of an Asian American civil rights group. It's easy. It's also mostly symbolic, empty and ineffectual. The city council member represents a district, not an ethnic group; the civil rights activist speaks only for one organization.
It's particularly problematic with American Muslims, the majority of whom are Sunnis, a sect famous for being non-hierarchical. "The most organized Muslim movements in America are not necessarily the most important (or numerous)," says Sherman A. Jackson, an Islamic law and theology specialist at the University of Michigan. That suggests that whichever religious leaders King calls to testify at his hearings are not likely to speak for, let alone influence, as many "followers."
What King will get, if he gets any cooperation at all, will be little more than a dog-and-pony show. It will explain nothing and reveal less about the sources of homegrown terrorism. No matter how much King's witnesses condemn violence or exhort U.S. patriotism, they're not likely to stop a Pakistani or Somali immigrant who decides to strap on a bomb.
Homegrown terrorism is a serious threat. But rather than grandstanding and making symbolic demands of Muslim spokespersons, King should simply read the report on the Ft. Hood shootings issued last month by his counterparts across the way in the Capitol, the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Rather than focusing on old-school minority politics and empty proofs of loyalty, the report called for improved coordination and cooperation among law enforcement agencies in dealing with a specific situation. Staying clear of minority admonishment, it advocated continued outreach to American Muslims.
The grown-up approach might not be as entertaining as a command performance of dancing Muslims, but it's a whole lot more likely to produce real-life results.