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.”
“It’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.” —Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison
“If you want people to collaborate with you, you don’t go on a witch hunt.” —Talat Hamdani, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
“This is not just a hearing in Washington. It will resonate across the Muslim world. —Faroque Khan, Islamic Center of Long Island
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.”