Senate Hearing Holds Key to Understanding Homegrown Hate

Published on The Washington Post.

In the chaos of bullets, riots, and the murder of an ambassador and three other U.S. citizens, a congressional hearing held in a quiet corner of the U.S. Senate holds the key to understanding the many costs of homegrown hate.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the threat of hate groups and domestic extremism in America. The hearing is historic. While Congress has held dozens of hearings on the threat of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, this will be the first hearing in recent history on homegrown hate. However, the media has barely taken note.

While the hearing was called in response to the massacre of six worshippers in Oak Creek, Wis., in August, it is necessary to understand the global riots in the news today. The hearing can confront the consequences of allowing homegrown hate to go unchecked – but only if we connect the dots.

Let’s start with the anti-Islam film that sparked the riots. The U.S. produced film “Innocence of Muslims” is a product of homegrown hate designed to denigrate Muslims — a product successfully exported to the rest of the world. While anti-U.S. sentiment was seething beneath the surface long before the amateurish production, the single film became a catalyst for anti-U.S. riots around the globe. The film did not appear in a vacuum. It is one of many products from a network that profits from promoting anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.

The Center for American Progress reports that between 2001 and 2009, seven foundations poured $42.6 million into well-organized think tanks to promote anti-Islam ideologies through blogs, books and films. Such propaganda became popular in the 2010 election season when some candidates used it to denigrate Islam or cast Muslim Americans as suspect during their campaigns. It is no surprise that the 2012 election season has seen a resurgence of anti-Islam propaganda.

At the same time as the explosive growth of the anti-Islam industry, we saw the alarming rise of white supremacist groups in America. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups has grown by almost 60 percent since 2000. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report on the sudden increase of white supremacist hate groups, most notably anti-government groups, since President Obama’s 2008 election. Today hate groups in America number more than a thousand.

The proliferation of hate groups combined with the rise of hate-fueled propaganda produces conditions ripe for extremist violence. In 2009, a gunman killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2011, someone attempted to plant an explosive devise at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Washington. Last month, white supremacist Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh house of worship and opened fire, killing six and injuring three more. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are now at an all-time high since 2001. We don’t know the exact number of anti-Sikh hate crimes, because the FBI does not specifically track them.

Underreported but true: There have been twice as many attacks on U.S. soil by white supremacist groups than by al-Qaeda inspired groups since Sept. 11, 2001. Sadly, investigating extremism in the Muslim American community writ large has captured far more national concern than in violent right-wing hate groups. A white Christian terrorist just does not fit cleanly into a decade-long narrative that casts Muslims as terrorists.

Such missed opportunities for genuine storytelling and truth-telling abound: stories of Muslims in Libya defending the consulate and rushing Ambassador Stevens to medical help; thousands from across the faith spectrum galvanizing a historic Senate hearing to prevent another Oak Creek tragedy. Stories of people uniting in the face of extremism can help us retire old us vs. them narratives.

It’s time to decry extremism in all forms: just as we rightfully condemn the extremists who incite anti-U.S. violence abroad, we must also reject extremism in all forms on our own U.S. soil. The Senate hearing provides a critical first step.

To be sure, we must not treat extremist hate speech and hate crimes as equivalent. Most hate speech is protected under the First Amendment; hate crimes violate law. As a filmmaker and civil rights advocate, I view most hate speech as free speech – whether the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” or the songs of Wade Michael Page’s white-power rock band “End Apathy.” But I also believe acts of extremist violence are nurtured in the social imagination long before they find expression. We can pursue domestic extremism in ways consistent with our commitment to civil liberties.

This means confronting hard truths. The Oak Creek gunman showed up in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s database a decade ago, but the government did not track him. In fact, when former analyst Daryl Johnson released a report on the alarming rise of white supremacist hate groups in America, the Department of Homeland Security caved into the political backlash and shut down Johnson’s team. It left just one analyst to focus on domestic terrorism by non-Muslims. It’s time to change the way we fight terror.

The Sikh American organizations who requested the congressional hearing understand that the costs of homegrown hate concern us all. In some cases, it results in violence against targeted communities at home, as in the Oak Creek massacre. In other cases, it incites violence at the hands of extremists in targeted communities abroad, as in the attacks in Libya and other countries. The outcome is the same: innocent people are caught in the gunfire.

The hearing has already earned the support of community leaders across the spectrum: African American, Latino American, Jewish and Muslim American, LGBTQ American, to name a few. Our media and elected officials cannot afford to ignore them. The world needs America to lead in exporting love and dignity – not hate and division.