Thomas Jefferson explained that democratic republics must “Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Representative Peter King’s witch-hunt to highlight extremism in American Muslims through Congressional hearings this week illustrates a deviation from the ideals set for by the founders of American democracy. Such devolution from the principles that buttress democracy itself should alarm not just Muslims, but all people who support American democracy.
Before discussing the harm done by Rep. King’s hearings, one must first appreciate the difference between absolute democracies and the republican form of democracy that the founders adopted in the United States. The difference between these two forms of government is that absolute democracies allow for an unfettered control by the majority at the expense of minorities. On the other hand, a republic is composed of democratically elected leaders who must follow a written constitution that protects individual rights, for all citizens regardless of their status as minority.
The form of the republic was embraced by American constitutional founders who despised the “excesses of democracy” that constantly risked the rights of minorities. Jefferson harshly critiqued the Virginia Legislature for violations of the individual rights of minorities in stating “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” Such an emphatic statement came from a revolutionary who believed that by allowing the majority to strip the rights of the minority, America’s new democratic rule would be no better than her colonial master.
The hypocrisy of these statements may be true as the founders who espoused such high-minded support for minority rights themselves owned slaves and witnessed the genocide of the Native Americans. However, the lessons put forth by their understanding of the institution of democratic rule cannot be disregarded in the present.
Jefferson’s worst fear has come to life with the congressional hearings led by Republican Peter King that lambaste the American Muslim community for becoming radicalized. The first misstep by Representative King in creating this public event is that it is based on a false presumption: that the Muslim community does not help law enforcement in routing out extremists in their midst. The New York Times and other major news sources have run editorials which explain that over 40% of the successful counter-terrorism operations were based on Muslims providing information.
And while Mr. King’s statement that Muslims are being radicalized in America may carry some truth, extremism in other communities has slowly grown in the nation. The rising threat from white supremacists in the United States was most recently exemplified by the arrest of Kevin William Harpham the same week as these hearings. Harpham has been accused of being a part of a white-supremacist terrorist plot that aimed at attacking a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Washington.
Harpham’s plan was not an anomaly in modern American history, in that there are several secret organizations that aim to bring about a “Caucasian Revolution” in the United States. One of these organizations called The Order, takes its name from a novel that depicts a fictional account of a white supremacist guerilla war to take over the government entitled “The Turner Diaries.” This book has inspired many American terrorist attacks including the Oklahoma City bombing, and should be a reminder of an extremism that is not limited to the mosques of the United States.
Mr. King’s hearing also lacks credibility due to the exclusive use of biased accounts describing the radical elements of American Islamic communities. That is not to say that the testimony of these individuals is not true and that some of the Muslim community, including Pakistanis, has become radicalized. Yet, the hearing’s discussion does not reflect the very wide array of Muslim Americans, and does not fully address the extremism that is growing in other parts of the society.
Thus the objective of these hearings is not to achieve enlightenment on how to deal with the problems presented by extremism, but is a cheap play on the public’s fear. Such behavior was exactly what the founders wished to prevent in creating a republican form of government with a Constitution and Bill of Rights that gave inalienable rights to all citizens. Individuals like Representative King will be remembered like Senator McCarthy, who carried on the trials of supposed communists in America. They will be remembered not as champions of democracy, but villains who attempted to misdirect the nation from its republican roots that prohibit oppression by the majority.