On Thursday Newsday (p. 2) published the latest in the loose-neocon-cannon-fodder remarks of Rep. Peter King, from Seaford, Long Island, New York. He remarked on a blogged video (politico.com) that there are “too many mosques in this country, there’s too many people who are sympathetic to radical Islam.” Before I read this in the morning, I had just returned from teaching a class on the Peoples of the Middle East when I found a request to discuss Rep. King’s comments with New York’s Eyewitness News Channel 7. The reporter arrived in less than an hour and I provided the context on why Muslims, especially on Long Island, take offense at these kinds of remarks. About 10 seconds of my commentary (although not the part directly relevant) made the evening news. Later in the afternoon I was contacted by a New York Times reporter who was following the same story. My comments to him did not make the brief “Metro Note” on King in today’s edition. With the daily rags telling Ahmadinejad to “Drop Dead” for daring to ask to lay a wreathe at the 9/11 site and Rudy vaunting that he would set Iran back “five or 10 years” if they dare develop nukes, the King’s comments seem to be but an echo of the more newsworthy Islamophobia on display.

After his remarks, Peter King insisted he did not mean there should be fewer mosques but that “too many mosques are not cooperating with law enforcement and too many have been taken over or are heavily influenced by extremists.” Reading between the lines, I think the intent is indeed that he thinks there are too many mosques, even on Long Island. Despite such remarks, he has been invited to speak at the Islamic Center of Long Island, but apparently he has “too many” more important things to do. A year ago he grabbed similar headlines for singling out the Islamic Center of Long Island and in particular its director, Dr. Faroque Khan, as a hotbed of terrorism. This irresponsible accusation brought a quick and sharp reply from Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, one of the largest reform synagogue congregations in the country, that Dr. Khan was a prominent activist for interfaith dialogue and had worked with Temple Beth-El on joint projects that break down the frustration and hatred that Rep. King says he fears most. The off-the-cuss remarks of King would be laughable except that he is the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security.

But let’s look at the sentiment, shared by many Islamophobes in America, that there are too many mosques. The U.S. State Department has a website devoted to Muslim Life in America. I suspect that Rep. King has never looked at this, but gets his “facts” on Islam straight from Campus Watch and other anti-Muslim crusades. If he had, he would find that there were only about 1,200 mosques in the U.S. in 2000. For some comparison, consider that there are an estimated 12,000 Mormon (Church of Latter Day Saints) temples and almost as many houses of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am not sure who King supports in the current Republican field, but I wonder if he is worried that there are ten times as many potential dens of religious iniquity out there where extremist Mormons are plotting to re-introduce polygamy. The number of Muslims associated with mosques in 2000 was estimated at only 2 million. There are widely varying estimates of the total number of Muslims in America, but if we take a conservative estimate of 6 million, this means only about one out of three have a link to a mosque and many of these would attend only on specific holidays (like Christians on Easter Sunday). Polls indicate that around 40% of American Christians go to church at least once a week. By this criterion, King should be worrying that Muslims are too secular, not that they are embracing extremism in the mosque.

The State Department website on Muslim Life n America begins with what must be an alarming statement to Rep. King (and indeed rightwing Christian ideologues such as Pat Robertson) that “Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United State today.” If so, it is probably the case that most of these converts are coming from Christianity, since we have few openly “pagan” groups around to evangelize. Does King think that Americans are attracted to Islam because it gives them an option to legitimize violent behavior and say “God said it was okay”? The opposite (Muslims becoming Christian) almost never occurs even though it is perfectly legal here in the United States. If Islam is such an intolerant religion, why do so few Muslims ever consider leaving it? If there are too many mosques out there, maybe it is due to demand.

Daniel Martin Varisco