Peter King's Muslim Problem
By Robert Kolker
New York Magazine
March 6, 2011
Peter King is working the back room of the Lindenhurst Diner on East Montauk Highway in Long Island, shaking hands and cracking jokes. In his blue polo and FDNY windbreaker, the 66-year-old ¬congressman blends in well with the dozens of retired New York City fire¬fighters who get together about once a month to catch up and relive old times. “They’re my base,” King says, downplaying the higher-income North Shore part of his district. “So if they’re mad about something, rather than pay $20,000 for a poll …”
After the omelettes and coffee, the men stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and they remain standing for a reading of names of recently deceased American soldiers.
Then King steps forward—tall, with a large face and meaty hands and wide, slumping shoulders. In his low Queens mumble, King reports on the condition of Bill Thomas, an old FDNY friend who’s been ill: “I went to see him, and he must be doing well, because he’s bitching and complaining more than ever.” The men laugh.
Next, King thanks his friends for their help on Election Day. November worked out well for him: The Republican takeover of the House elevated King to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Homeland Security—giving him the added distinction of being the only New York–area congressman with a leadership position in the new order. Before he finishes, King coyly references the firestorm he’s about to create in Washington. “I’ll be getting some shots,” he says. “There’s some incoming coming my way. I hope you can help me with that.”
On Thursday, March 10, King will preside over the first in a series of special House Homeland Security Committee hearings focusing on what he sees as the rising domestic terror threat posed by radicalized American Muslims and, more provocatively, the lack of cooperation among the U.S. Islamic community to help prevent future attacks at home. The hearings are expected to be as controversial as anything the new Republican Congress has done—though, in this case, King is proceeding with little or no support from other party leaders. King says his goal is to protect us from a growing danger we’ve grown blind to and are afraid to look at out of political correctness. His opponents say that by singling out Muslims, King is promoting anti-¬Islam hatred and could actually trigger a domestic terror attack.
King sees himself as a brave voice seeking the truth. Others are less generous. To them, he is a Joe ¬McCarthy for the age of terrorism.
On the wall behind King’s desk in his office in Massapequa Park—a large room made smaller by the World Trade Center, Mets, and Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia covering practically every surface—is a color photograph of a little boy, the congressman’s grandson, standing next to Barack Obama. The boy does not look happy.
The picture was taken last spring at the annual White House picnic and Easter-egg roll. “We were waiting on the line to get a picture taken with the president, and it’s sort of a long haul for kids,” King says with a crooked grin. “And as the president is about five feet away, my granddaughter kicks my grandson in the face. So in the picture, the president is telling him not to be mad at his sister. He wouldn’t even acknowledge Obama, he was so mad.”
King has long been viewed as one of the more bi-partisan Republican forces in Washington—a conservative with whom liberals can find common ground. The son of working-class Irish Republicans from Sunnyside, Queens (his father was a storied instructor at the police academy who trained Ray Kelly and voted for Eisenhower and Nixon), the roots of his conservatism are more class-based than ideological. “In New York, conservatives believe in original sin and that no one’s perfect,” he says. “We don’t pass judgment on too many people.” King spent his summers during law school interning at Richard Nixon’s law firm alongside Rudy Giuliani (Giuliani was a liberal then, King notes wryly), then moved to Seaford, Long Island, and climbed the ladder of the Nassau County Republican organization, where his mentor was Al D’Amato. (King’s son, Sean, now works for D’Amato’s lobbying firm, Park Strategies.) Elected to Congress in 1992, King was an early supporter of the Iraq War and has opposed efforts to close Guantánamo and repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But he has also rallied to the defense of labor unions and slammed offshore tax havens for the rich. He has defied Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich. And he’s even enjoyed a warm friendship with Bill Clinton. He was one of just two Republicans to show early support for Clinton’s military intervention in Bosnia, and he famously opposed Clinton’s impeachment. (Perhaps in return, King says that both Bill and Hillary have gone out of their way to support him, to the point of not supporting his Democratic opponents when he runs for reelection.) In his spare time, King has written three novels, all lightly dramatized treatments of subjects close to his heart, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His prose style is plain and no-nonsense, which is how he views himself as well.
For a time, King also was a friend of American Muslims—possibly one of the best they had in Congress. His first trip abroad as a congressman was to Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo to support Muslims under siege by Serbs—and he embraced the growing Muslim community in his district. “It was like a family atmosphere with him,” remembers Habeeb Ahmed, chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of Long Island, a large religious center in a wealthy enclave on the North Shore. King not only spoke at the Islamic Center; he cut the ribbon on the place. He was especially close with an early member, Faroque Khan, the prestigious former chairman of medicine at Nassau County Medical Center, who raised money for King more than once. King was even a guest at Khan’s son’s wedding.
On September 11, King watched the Pentagon burn from his office in Washington. Some 150 people in his district lost their lives that day, including the firefighter son of a close friend of King’s, Jimmy Boyle. At first, King wasn’t inclined to change his views of the Muslim community. “I remember doing a number of radio interviews in the next few days saying we can’t do to the Muslims what we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor,” he says. But on October 18, Ghazi Khankan, the Islamic Center’s interfaith director at the time, was quoted in a local paper, pointing to a conspiracy and suggesting that it wasn’t Muslims who attacked the World Trade Center. “Who really benefits from such a horrible tragedy that is blamed on Muslims and Arabs?” he said. “Definitely Muslims and Arabs do not benefit. It must be an enemy of Muslims and ¬Arabs. An independent investigation must take place.” In the same article, Safdar Chadda, a dentist and then co-president of the mosque, said, “The Israeli government would benefit from this tragedy by now branding Palestinians as terrorists and crushing them by force.”
King was incensed—and remains so a decade later. “I saw one person after another talking this way, and I saw nobody contradicting it,” he says. “I mean, it’s one thing to have some sort of academic, intellectual discussion 50 years later, like to say, ‘Well, maybe the embargoes the U.S. imposed were partly responsible for Pearl Harbor,’ but anybody right out of the box after ground zero, defending, or giving an explanation, or giving an excuse?” He condemned the entire Islamic Center, though it had officially denounced the attacks; he was angry his old friends weren’t doing more to counter what a few of its members were saying. He called Faroque Khan a “radical,” even though Khan spoke at synagogues and churches to try to repair the damage. “It wasn’t successful,” King says. “He was basically put out of the synagogue. The remarks he made about Israel were considered so offensive that he just made a bad situation worse.”
King hasn’t spoken to Khan since. But he respun the story of their falling out and his own disillusionment in his third novel, Vale of Tears—a thriller, published in 2004, in which terrorists attack New York again. When more than 100 people die in a string of explosive attacks on buildings and train tunnels, King’s usual protagonist, a blustery Irish Long Island congressman named Sean Cross, traces the attacks to his own backyard—a branch of Al Qaeda, recruiting terrorists at a posh North Shore Islamic center. “It was dirtbags living here a few years,” the fictional congressman snaps. “Right here among all of us.” Searching for answers, Cross confronts the Islamic center’s founder, Dr. Abdul Ahmed, a wealthy and prestigious surgeon. “The problem is that there is a disconnect about where the ultimate loyalty of some of your people lies,” Cross says. “Besides condemning the terrorist attacks, your people must step forward and cooperate with the police and FBI. In other words, turn in your own people.” Ahmed is persuaded by Cross and coughs up a key piece of information that helps the Feds bust up the sleeper cell.
Faroque Khan says he hasn’t read King’s novel. “I thought congressmen had better things to do, like manage the economy,” he tells me. But the message King is sending Khan—and American Muslims—in Vale of Tears seems clear. “Maybe this will show them that their real loyalties should be to America,” one character says, and Cross agrees: “If it’s a choice between some guy who’s an illegal alien being deported or New York City being blown to pieces,” he says, “I say fuck the alien.”
When King talks about terrorism, he even sounds like Sean Cross—grave, hypervigilant, a man who knows too much. “I talk to the police all the time,” King says. “I’m the only member of Congress who is both on the Homeland Security committee and the Intelligence committee, so I’m constantly getting briefings from the outside in and the inside out.” In the past two years, King says, he has begun to feel that what he’d predicted in Vale of Tears about the next attack is becoming inevitable. “I guess you can say that the book I wrote, some of the things I worried about then, are happening now.”
King announced his plan to hold hearings about the domestic Islamic threat in December. Since then, dozens of religious, human-rights, and civil-liberties groups, and several of King’s colleagues from across the aisle, have loudly denounced the idea. Demonstrators have protested and held vigils outside his office. A “Today I Am a Muslim, Too” rally has been planned for March 6 in Times Square. The Republican leadership, focused on the economy and wary of the criticism the hearings stand to generate, hasn’t exactly backed King either. Asked last month about the opposition to the hearings, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said flatly, “Representative King is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.”
King says he simply wants to start “a debate about the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community and how real that is.” He also wants “to have people within the community realize their current leadership is not serving them well.” To back his claim that the threat of homegrown terrorism is rising, he cites a Congressional Research Service report showing that authorities have made arrests in 22 alleged homegrown jihad-related terrorism plots since May 2009 (they made only 21 such arrests in the eight years before then), and references high-profile cases of homegrown terror attempts by radicalized Muslims, like the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. He says he is alarmed by a 2007 Pew survey suggesting that 15 percent of Muslim Americans between 18 and 29 think suicide bombing can sometimes or often be justified. He also says law-enforcement officials have told him that “there are any number of mosques that are under surveillance, and police feel they are not getting the straight story from the people in those mosques.”
But King tends to overlook data that undermines his arguments—like a recent report from Duke and the University of North Carolina that found that it was fellow Muslims who turned in 48 of the 120 Muslims suspected of plotting domestic terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001. He refuses to name the sources who claim Muslims are uncooperative (he says they’re always off the record with him). And the list of witnesses he plans to call is a subject of controversy as well. He hasn’t asked any experts on the threat of domestic terror to testify about the true extent of the threat (one witness invited by Democrats on the committee, Sheriff Leroy Baca of Los Angeles County, recently said he hadn’t heard any complaints about Muslim noncooperation).
King has settled on inviting only everyday Muslims—“people from inside the community”—to testify. The hearing format allows him three witnesses. One of his choices is M. Zuhdi Jasser, a conservative Arizona physician and military veteran who has repeatedly spoken out about Muslim separatist culture leading to a lack of cooperation with U.S. law-¬enforcement officials. “King is taking a lot of heat because he’s saying this is a Muslim problem,” Jasser says, “but what people are ignoring is how he’s saying Muslims are also the solution.” The other two witnesses are Abdirizak Bihi and Melvin Bledsoe, both family members of Muslim Americans who are allegedly linked to homegrown terror attempts. “They’re relatives of people who were radicalized,” King says. “They will discuss how they were radicalized, and the lack of cooperation after they went to the local leaders, the imams.”
King also aims to discredit advocacy groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that claim to speak on behalf of mainstream American Muslims. King believes that CAIR, which encourages Muslims not to speak to the FBI without a lawyer present, is promoting an atmosphere of noncooperation. “Why the Muslim community considers CAIR to be a spokesperson when they were named an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas-funding case, I don’t understand,” King says.
King’s critics say that even if the hearings raise important questions, King is the wrong person to be asking them. He is, they say, demonstrably anti-Muslim. In 2004, King repeated the assertion that extremism has spread to 80 percent of the American Muslim population—an unsubstantiated statistic that derives from a 1999 statement by a Sufi leader named Hisham Kabbani, who has been widely condemned for making the remark and hasn’t publicly elaborated on it since. In 2007, King told a reporter that America had “too many mosques”—a quote he later clarified by saying “too many mosques in this country do not cooperate with law enforcement.”
Mostly, the fear is that the atmospherics of the hearing will stifle their public benefit. America is a tinderbox of prejudice and fear. King’s detractors say those are entirely the emotions he aims to exploit—that the purpose of these hearings isn’t exactly sincere. “King’s intent seems clear: to cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia,” says California Democratic congressman Michael Honda.
“My son was a proud American, and he would be so disgusted if he were alive,” says Talat Hamdani, a member of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose police-cadet son Mohammad Salman Hamdani died as a first responder at the World Trade Center. “If you want people to collaborate with you, you don’t go on a witch hunt. It’s wrong when your own nation turns against you. He’s pandering.”
Asim Rehman, vice-president of the Muslim Bar Association of New York, says the hearings are not only divisive but potentially dangerous. “Last year we saw vandalism, verbal threats, actual physical violence committed against Muslim Americans,” he says. “Will these hearings convince others to do the wrong thing?”
Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims elected to Congress, who plans to testify at King’s hearing as a dissenting witness, says any investigation into domestic terrorism should look at all potential sources, not just single out one group: “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.” Ellison also thinks the hearings may backfire, driving terrified Muslims further away from the mainstream. “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.”
In the worst-case scenario, some observers worry that a congressional hearing that targets the American Muslim community won’t stop the next attack but provoke it.
“Pete King has to understand that this is not just a hearing in Washington,” says the congressman’s former friend Faroque Khan. “It will resonate across the Muslim world. And depending on how he does and how it turns out, it could create more problems. I hope he understands that. There’s a perception in some parts of the world that the United States is at war with Muslims. I don’t think it’s true. But this is the man in the street.”
King says such arguments only play into the hands of the enemy. “People think, ‘If we do look into this, it’s going to make the community more hostile,’ ” he says. “But if they’re already hostile, we’re playing their game.” Although he says American Muslims shouldn’t be painted with the broad brush of terrorism, he insists that after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks, they have a special obligation. “People say, ‘Does that mean all Catholics should be blamed for Timothy McVeigh?’ and I say no. But if the Jewish Defense League did something, then yes, the Jews would have an obligation to speak out. If there was an Irish Catholic organization, or if a group in Ireland was recruiting people over here to fight the U.S., then yeah, we would have an obligation to speak out.” He even goes a step further and suggests that he, not the Muslim community, is the real victim of a double standard. “I mean, from the moment I announced these hearings, there’s been this incendiary reaction—not that that bothers me,” he says. “But if I had made this about the Christian right or militia movements, I doubt there would have been this knee-jerk reaction. I’d like the media to accept that this can be a conversation without anyone being accused of being a bigot.”
Although King has eyed runs for governor and senator in the past, the ten-term congressman doesn’t seem to have career aspirations beyond keeping his current position. While it’s unclear how King’s hearings might poll nationally, they figure to play well in his district—¬especially with his blue-collar base, many of whom have direct connections to 9/11—where King is facing a move to redistrict him out of a job. But politics alone don’t explain King’s motives. Something about 9/11, and the betrayal he felt from Muslims in its aftermath, seems to have triggered a fundamental shift in him. “Even today I cannot begin to describe the disappointment, anger, and outrage I felt,” King wrote in a December op-ed piece. “As I became more immersed in attempting to unravel the radical Islamic threat to our nation and our civilization, it became more and more obvious to me that the moral myopia of Long Island’s Muslim leaders and their apologists in the media was the rule—and that there were few exceptions.”
Even before 9/11, King took a certain pleasure in being that guy—the reality-check guy, the not politically correct guy, the everyday neighborhood guy. Now being that guy for King means being the man who remains vigilant about the threat of terrorism when others have grown complacent. So what happens when people call him a bully, an opportunist, or even a racist? How does that make him feel?
“Let’s not get into too much psychobabble,” King says. “There’s a war going on.”