The King of scapegoating

Shaun Harkin documents the bigotry and hypocrisy of Congress' top witch-hunter.

Rep. Peter KingRep. Peter King

IN A letter to two American socialists in April 1870, Karl Marx described how English workers were encouraged to cherish "religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the 'poor whites' to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA."

Marx explained that this was a divide-and-conquer tactic of the English ruling class: "This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class."

The racism, elitism and violence of ruling classes that send workers to war, evict a family from their home and make a section of the population the target of hatred is embodied in their political servants, too.

Today, it's hard to think of a cruder peddler of prejudice than Republican congressman Peter King of New York.

King, the new chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, became notorious as the man behind congressional hearings on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."

The first hearing took place on March 10, and more are expected periodically over the next year and a half. But King's views aren't new. For example, in a 2007 interview with Politico.com, King declared, "Unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country, too many people who are sympathetic to radical Islam."

During a 2004 appearance on Fox News to promote his novel Vale of Tears--a reactionary and self-indulgent fable about a congressman, the Irish Republican Army and radical Islam--King complained that Muslims in the U.S. refused to cooperate with law enforcement: "[Y]ou could say that 80-85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists...The average Muslim, no, they are loyal--but they don't work, they don't come forward, they don't tell the police.

But King acted astonished at the idea that either his insults or the hearings he oversaw could lead to violent attacks on Muslims. King claimed, "I do not want anything said at my hearing that could justify someone throwing a brick at a mosque...I'll be managing the hearing, so the responsibility is mine to make sure there is no kind of religious bias or hostility toward Muslims."

A group of 80 members of the religious community--Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant--in the Long Island district he represents responded with a letter to King:

Let us remember the lessons of history. Entire communities should never be targeted for suspicion of disloyalty.

During World War II, Japanese-Americans were deprived of their rights and forced into internment camps because of blanket distrust of their commitment to our country. The McCarthy hearings became a shameful national spectacle that falsely impugned the loyalty and destroyed the lives of many Americans. Catholics were once demonized as threats to democracy beholden to a foreign power. Jews and African Americans have faced centuries of suspicion and prejudice.

Today, Muslim-Americans in many communities face fierce opposition when they propose to build mosques and worship peacefully. A growing number of Muslims are victims of hate crimes. This bigotry and discrimination, rooted in fear and ignorance, diminishes us all and unfairly maligns Americans who teach our children, serve our country, live peacefully and believe in the American dream.

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BIGOTRY AND violence against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. isn't a new phenomenon. For example, in an essay in the book Civil Rights in Peril, Susan M. Akram and Kevin R. Johnson write:

In 1986, in apparent response to the Reagan administration's "war on terrorism" directed at Libya, another episode of anti-Arab harassment broke out. The same night as a U.S. bombing raid on Libya, the American-Arab Discrimination Committee national office in Washington received threats. Shortly thereafter, the Detroit American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee office, the Dearborn Arab Community Center and the Detroit Arab-American newspaper received bomb threats.

Threats, beatings, and other violent attacks on Arabs were reported in the United States. At this time, someone broke into a Palestinian family's home, set off a smoke bomb inside the house, and painted slogans such as "Go Back to Libya" on the walls.

But Islamophobia has intensified in the decade since George W. Bush launched the "war on terror." For example, a 2007 Newsweek poll of non-Muslim Americans found that 64 percent "disagreed" with allowing their son or daughter to date a Muslim. The same poll found that 52 percent of respondents didn't think Muslims were unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

The hysterical campaign last summer against the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan demonstrated the kind of rage that Peter King fuels. Such outbursts of bigotry have had deadly consequences. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a significant growth of U.S.-based hate groups since September 11, 2001, many of them imbued with Islamophobia.

The systematic demonization of Muslims and Islam in the U.S. is closely tied to American wars abroad. The U.S. war machine is killing Muslims in numerous countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and now Libya, to name but a few. To the horrific images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has been added those the "Kill Team," as Rolling Stone described:

Among the men of Bravo Company, the notion of killing an Afghan civilian had been the subject of countless conversations, during lunchtime chats and late-night bull sessions. For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging "savages" and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger.

Peter King and the U.S. political establishment are as responsible for the murder and mayhem of Bravo Company as they are for the harassment of Muslims and people of Middle East origin living in the U.S. Islamophobia is wired into the U.S. political system and the Pentagon, at home and abroad. The U.S. empire can't function without promoting the belief that the people of the Middle East are inferior.

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AS FOR King, he's no run-of-the-mill bigot. In 2005, he was a primary sponsor of the now infamous "Sensenbrenner bill" that would have criminalized all 12 million largely Latino undocumented immigrants in the U.S., along with anyone who aided them. Sensenbrenner's HR 4437 was passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005, but failed in the Senate following massive demonstrations and a "boycott" of work by immigrants across the country.

So King has been consistent in his bigotry. But there is one issue that highlights his hypocrisy: Ireland.

King built his political career out of winning Irish American support in his New York district. His support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA)--denounced as "terrorists" by the British and American government alike--and its military struggle against British control and occupation of Northern Ireland has been well-reported in the mainstream press. Ed Moloney, author of A Secret History of the IRA, described King's relationship with the Provos:

When the IRA killed nine policemen in a mortar attack on the Irish border, [King] refused to condemn the action. The BBC then banned him from the airwaves under a law which said that the words of IRA members or supporters could not be broadcast. In 1982, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: "We must 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.

Official hostility towards King was ramped up on both sides of the Atlantic. When he tried to attend the trial of IRA suspects in Belfast, the judge threw him out saying that "he was an obvious collaborator with the IRA." During other visits to courtrooms, he was singled out by the police for more intensive body searches.

It was much the same back home in America. The GOP in Nassau County tried to muzzle him, but failed, and he complained that the FBI was opening his mail, including letters from Gerry Adams. In 1984, the Secret Service listed him as a threat when President Reagan visited Long Island to watch a Special Olympics event.

Media reports claim that Barack Obama offered King the opportunity to become U.S. Ambassador to Ireland in 2009--a shocking move from a supposedly liberal Democrat--but King turned down the position to continue his "work" in Congress.

King's sympathies with Ireland seem to have cooled after the U.S. launched its "war on terror." In 2005, he complained about "knee-jerk anti-Americanism" in Ireland after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. "I don't buy that it's just anti-Bush," he said. "There's a certain unpleasant trait that the Irish have, and it's begrudgery...and resentment towards the Americans."

This shift in attitude may have been motivated by his new vehemence against Muslims and Arabs. Whatever his motives, King supported the IRA's struggle against British imperialism. But he is completely unable to understand, must less identify with, the opposition to U.S. imperialism, whether it comes from the Middle East or the U.S. itself.

This isn't blindness but racism. King's Islamophobia is directed at people of color, and his anti-Muslim hearings are designed to deflect attention away from the crimes of Wall Street, the Pentagon's wars abroad, and the vast inequality of U.S. society.

Given King's record, one wonders how Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister and leader of Sinn Fein, could stomach a St. Patrick's Day breakfast in King's company in Washington, D.C.?

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FOR THOSE who know King's history on the issue of the Irish freedom struggle, his hypocrisy in scapegoating Muslims today stands out in even sharper relief. Several decades ago, King played a role in the U.S. campaign to defend Irish immigrants who were falsely accused of carrying out terrorist bombings in Britain.

The bombings spurred a hysteria led by the British political establishment and media that demonized all Irish people living in England. Irish schools, community centers, homes and pubs were attacked. Irish workers suffered abuse and violence on the job. Political leaders called for capital punishment to be reintroduced so the "Irish bombers" could be hung. Britain's Parliament rushed into law through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, giving the police new powers to round up, interrogate and charge Irish suspects.

In the midst of this scapegoating, several groups of working-class Irish immigrants were arrested in connection to the bombings--they were convicted and given harsh sentences. The Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four all maintained their innocence, but their appeals were dismissed out of hand, and they languished in English jails.

However, they and their supporters never gave up and tirelessly organized campaigns in Ireland, Britain and the U.S. that eventually proved their innocence and won their freedom. It was a massive blow to the British "justice" system when the wrongfully imprisoned were released.

In the U.S., Peter King chaired the Committee for Legal Justice, which was dedicated to fighting for justice for the victims of hysterical campaigns of British politicians who demonized all Irish people living in England as potential terrorists. Longtime New York Irish solidarity activist Sandy Boyer was also part of the committee. He says he:

worked closely with Peter King in the campaign to free the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, Irish men who had been framed for IRA bombings in Britain. They were victims of anti-Irish hysteria which labeled anyone Irish a terrorist. It's very sad that Peter is now helping to whip up the same kind of hysteria against Muslims in the U.S.

Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, wrote in his powerful testament Cruel Fate:

The Birmingham explosions took the lives of 21 innocent people, and more than 150 were injured or maimed for life. I have deep sympathy for the victims and their families. However, we, too, were victims.

In their haste to punish somebody for the terrible carnage inflicted on so many innocent people that night in 1974, the police picked on us. We were six innocent people whom they beat and tortured into making false confessions. We spent 16 years behind bars for a crime we didn't commit. Our homes were destroyed. Our families were left in disarray; our children's futures were shattered. The mighty and the powerful could not bring themselves to admit that they were wrong. Justice was sacrificed for 16 years to protect reputations.

It doesn't take much effort to see the parallels in the witch-hunting of Irish immigrants in Britain in the 1970s and the witch-hunt of Muslim and Arabs in the U.S. today. But today, Peter King is on the other side.

King and the Islamophobic poison he espouses must be rejected and challenged--on the streets, in the press, in the workplace, in our unions, churches and classrooms, and by all the means at our disposal. Solidarity with Muslims and Arabs, at home and abroad, is the only way to stop the "mighty and powerful" from dividing each to conquer both.