Texas Congressman Al Green shared his opinion during a recent House Homeland Security Committee hearing on “The Radicalization of Muslim-Americans.”  Mainly, he raised a concern voiced by both himself and his Democrat allies on the committee that the hearings have tended to paint a troubling view of Muslim Americans.  But he did so by raising a unique counter-challenge: Green argued that if the committee has time for hearings on radical Islam, then it should have time for hearings on radical Christians as well.

I do not, not — N-O-T — oppose hearings on radicalization. I do oppose hearings that don’t focus on the entirety of radicalization. And if you [the witnesses] agree that we have Christians, as has been mentioned by more than one member, Christians who become radicalized, they become part of Islam and they become radicalized as is being said, why not have a hearing on the radicalization of Christians?

Later in his remarks, he went on to add: “I’m not opposed to the hearings.  I just want to be fair.  I want to be fair to Muslims, I want to be fair to people who practice Islam.  And to be fair, you have to go beyond just the radicalization of Islam, and that’s what we’re not doing.” Much like the claim made by the Council of American-Islamic Relations that Committee Chairman Peter King’s (R-NY) hearings have not proved his case on radical Islam and have only served to and only serve to alienate and stigmatize American Muslims, Green’s argument seeks to rhetorically challenge the premises of the hearing.  If one religion is subject to heightened scrutiny, why aren’t we scrutinizing others?  The conclusion Green would have us draw is that the heightened scrutiny is borne out of other reasoning (like prejudice) than real security reasons.

I would disagree that Congressman King is seeking to alienate and stigmatize Muslims in general – he openly specified in the opening remarks of the hearing that the majority of American Muslims are not radicalized, but rather that he seeks to focus on those segments of the American Muslim population that do have radical tendencies.   But even though Congressman Green’s question was likely meant to be rhetorical, I want to answer it anyway.

Why should we only focus on radical Islam and not radical Christianity, Judaism, or any other world religion?  The answer, thought it requires a bit of unpacking, is fairly straightforward: though fundamentalism and radicalism can affect all religions or religious believers given the right circumstances, the nature of radicalization in Islam is unique in its relation to our modern context and our situation in America.

DISCLAIMER: Like Congressman King, I do not seek to stigmatize all of Islam.  I am merely seeking to identify the particular issues at hand that would lead King to hold hearings on radical Islam in the first place and not on radical Christianity.  And while there are dozens more discussions that can be had about whether or not American policy is responsible for Islamic radicalization, or if Islam is more likely to be radical than other religions, I’m specifically not addressing them here.  It is my objective to stay focused on the answer to Congressman Green’s question.

Before proceeding, I must bring up one very critical point by clearly defining our terms.  The terms “fundamentalist” and “radical” are thrown around frequently by politicians and media figures without any precision, often to denigrate the conservative (either politically or theologically) wing of religious groups.  This is a horrible misuse of both terms.  In reality, they form very separate categories that build upon each other.  While it is true that someone who is a religious fundamentalist is most likely from the conservative wing of that religion, that does not make all conservatives in a religion fundamentalists.  (The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance have a good overview of the term “fundamentalist” and its meaning in Christianity and Islam here.)

Similarly, a radical will most likely be a fundamentalist, but the majority of fundamentalists are not radicals.  For the purposes of this article, the main distinction between fundamentalism and radicalism is that of violent action: to be a radical, one must reach a point where he or she actually commits violence, is willing to commit violence, or supports violence in the name of the religion or religious sect.

This tricky distinction could be the entire issue behind Green’s objection.  As I mentioned previously, many in the media and on the political left are guilty of misusing the “radical” or “extremist” label  to ostracize both those on the political right and on the religious right.  While the two have traditionally been allies to some extent, the religious right and the political right are not simply interchangeable terms for the same group of people.  As I have hopefully demonstrated, religious fundamentalism is a unique phenomenon that has to be addressed on its own terms.  Thus, I will presume Green’s comments are narrowly focused on the religious issues at hand will and continue with my explanation.

Now that the distinction between “fundamentalist” and “radical” is clearer, it is important to look to the unique circumstances of each religion and its various fundamentalist varieties to see how they developed.   Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan sought to do just that in their 2003 book Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around The World.  The product of a decade-long research initiative called the Fundamentalism Project, Strong Religion was written to provide an overview of the social, cultural, and political factors that have helped shape fundamentalist sects around the world.

One issue I found with the book is that the authors don’t address the question of violence directly, and thus don’t attempt to differentiate between violent radicals and general fundamentalists. Taking this into account, however, a careful reading of the book still reveals a great deal of insightful information and analysis about the origins of various fundamentalist groups, their behaviors and characteristics, and the factors that contributed to their formation.  The book also provided a helpful visual breakdown of their research and findings in the appendices for easy accessibility and reference.

For our purposes, there are two particularly important factors to consider with regard to what particular fundamentalist groups perceived as their “enemies” or as things they must oppose:

  • Among the four categories of religions the project surveyed (Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and South Asian), Islamic fundamentalist groups surveyed were identified as having the highest concentration of enmity for the secular state.
  • With the exception of some fundamentalist Hindus in the South Asian category, Islamic fundamentalists were the only category identified as reacting strongly against the influence of imperialism and neocolonialism.  In particular, Hamas and Hezbollah (spelled Hizbullah in the book) have the strongest concentration of anti-imperialist and anti-neocolonialist sentiments, and Egyptian, Algerian, Iranian (particularly under the Ayatollah Khomenei), and Pakistani fundamentalist groups had lower but still significant tendencies.

This is what makes Islamic fundamentalism so significant in an American context.  Not only are fundamentalists more likely in Islam to oppose the secular state, a quality of our government that is a point of pride in America, but fundamentalists in Islam are also more likely to also oppose the influence of western powers in foreign affairs – a particularly important issue in a modern context given America’s current military and political involvement in the Middle East.

In contrast, Christian fundamentalists had significantly lower concentrations of opposition to the secular state and no noteworthy opposition to imperialism or neocolonialism.  Both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists were comparably likely to oppose unfavorable aspects of the civil society, and Christians had a higher concentration of opposition to “religious establishment” groups (i.e. dominant church groups that are antithetical to the sect) than did Muslim fundamentalists.

As I explained previously, radicalism is borne out of the fundamentalism that it originated from.  Thus, the violence committed by radicals will be motivated by their particular beliefs and situations.  So if a theoretical fundamentalist Muslim and a theoretical fundamentalist Christian were to both radicalize, they would be likely to target very different things with their violence.  Whereas a Christian radical would focus more on unfavorable aspects of society or the religious establishment (such as the Catholic-led Irish Republican Army targeting Protestants in Ireland), a radical Muslim would be more likely to target public institutions, officials, or other elements perceived as a part of the secular state or imperialist regime.  Due to the current mess in the Middle East, it stands to reason that the American government and its allies are more likely to be targeted by Muslim radicals than they are by Christian radicals.

This information brings us to an answer to Congressman Green’s original question.  Why, Congressman Green, are there hearings on radical Islam and no hearings on radical Christianity?  Because radical Islamists are more likely to focus their violence toward American political and military interests, radical Christians are more likely to focus their violence toward those things they view as harmful to the Christian religion and harmful to culture.  Thus, while both radical Christianity and radical Islam are serious issues worthy of scrutiny, radical Islam is a more fruitful use of the Committee on Homeland Security’s time and energy to investigate because its activities pose a more direct and significant threat to American national security.