King Hearing on Radical Islam Yields Partisanship, Division, Little Substance

King Hearing on Radical Islam Yields Partisanship, Division, Little Substance

Rep. Peter King's hearing on radicalization in Islam. The room was full for the entire, day-long hearing.
Rep. Peter King's hearing on radicalization in Islam. The room was full for the entire, day-long hearing.

A highly anticipated hearing today at the House Homeland Security Committee ended with little headway into its stated aims, instead uncovering racial, partisan, and strategic splits on the issue of how to combat so-called home-grown terrorism in the United States.  The hearing, entitled 'The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response', was called by Peter King (R-NY), who became the head of the House's Homeland Security Committee earlier this year.  

King, who claims he is attempting to investigate the problem of a perceived lack of cooperation by the American Muslim community in combating home-grown terrorism, is accused by his critics of instead being motivated by hate for Islam in general.  Some of his statements regarded by some as generalizations of the American Muslim community, such as his assertion that “85% of the mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists” and that there are “too many mosques in this country”, were once again under scrutiny today.

Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the ranking Democrat on the committee pointed out that this kind of proceeding maybe one of the best recruiting tools Al-Qaeda can get, since their narrative is built around the idea that the West is fighting Islam.

The hearing, which appeared to be completely split along party lines, was extolled as “welcome” and “courageous in the face of political correctness” by Republican members, and denounced as “outrageous” and “grossly incomplete” by the minority delegation of Democrats.  The minority party representatives, all but two of whom were black, repeatedly asked why the Islamic faith was being singled out, while other Christian groups with ties to white supremacists were not being included in the discussion.  

Outside the hearing room, more than a hundred people spent most of the morning and afternoon waiting to get inside.  Dozens of journalists shuffled back and forth, often finding it difficult to find a viewpoint that was in agreement with King among the crowd of activists, legal experts, congressional staffers and representatives of various communities and national organizations.  Several European embassies sent special observers, anticipating the broader international    implications of such a hearing.

Alejandro Beutel, from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, questioned if the hearing was “going to be of any value to our country, or instead be a broad brushing of an entire faith community. ”  He pointed out that King was unable to get any law enforcement official to testify for his side, asserting that they recognize the importance of a good relationship with the American Muslim community.

Dixon Osburn, Director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, also expressed concerns on the hearing, saying “Every national security expert will tell you, 'You need to build trust between the community and law enforcement', and Rep. King has setup these hearings to destroy that trust.”  He believed the motivations for this hearing were largely political, pointing out the likelihood of this becoming a “new wedge issue going into the 2012 elections. ”

The degree of hysteria surrounding the hearing was comparable to that in 1941 concerning Japanese Americans by Floyd Mori, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, stating that after this hearing it was “going to be very difficult for Muslims to hold their heads up. ”

One of those accused of generating the hysteria is Randall Terry, a conservative pro-life activist that rose to prominence two decades ago blockading abortion clinics.  Terry welcomed the hearing as long overdue.  He was outside the hearing most of the day, smoking an electronic cigarette and distributing copies of a DVD entitled 'What Would Muhammad Do?'.  When asked about the hearing he said that it “Starts a series of questions concerning orthodox historical Islam.  Whether the ideology of Islam, the ideology of Muhammad, are a threat to basic human rights.”  Terry believes that the basic teachings of Islam are not compatible with universal notions of human rights, while those of his faith are.  “If you want to follow Jesus Christ, you become St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa...but if you want to follow Muhammad you become a violent murderer. ”

Several Republican members of the committee echoed Randall Terry's concerns.  “Creeping Sharia”, the idea that Islam would become dominant in America by slowly introducing one aspect of Sharia law after another, was addressed by Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, who was invited to testify by Rep. King.  Dr. Jasser, a medical doctor who served as a Lt. Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, is the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, one of a number of post-9/11 organizations calling for a complete modernization of Islam.  He particularly singled out organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), saying “Multiculturalism [and] political correctness have prevented true ideological assimilation. ”

But Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) questioned the authority of the witnesses to speak on behalf of the Muslim community, saying:  “I don't believe these are experts.  I am a practicing Roman Catholic.  I go to Church every single Sunday...and I am no better prepared to speak about the pedophilia in the Church because I am a practicing Roman Catholic. ”

One of the first to testify was Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of only two Muslims in the Congress.  He said the hearing threatens the nation's security, and violates a goal of the   Committee to “do no harm”.  Calling the hearing a “scapegoating and stereotyping” of Islam, Ellison broke down into tears as he recounted the circumstances around the death of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Muslim killed in the 9/11 attacks who was initially reported by mainstream media as one of the perpetrators.

Others questioned whether or not the Muslim community was adequately cooperating with law enforcement agencies, and if public hearings such as this one would dissuade American Muslims from being compliant in the future.  

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim grassroots civil rights advocacy group in the nation, was frequently mentioned by those advocating a tougher stance towards the Muslim community as an example of an uncooperative, terror-linked organization.    In 2007 CAIR was named by the Department of Justice, along with 306 individuals and organizations including the three largest associations of American Muslims, as an 'un-indicted co-conspirator' in a case involving the Holy Land Trust, a charity accused of funneling money to Hamas.  A federal court later ruled that such a listing by the FBI, based on evidence that would not even be able to meet the standards for a grand jury indictment, was a violation of the fifth-amendment.  

Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN), brought up the issue to Sheriff Leroy Baca, from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  Sherrif Baca, who was invited to speak by the committee's Democratic minority, repeatedly lauded the degree of cooperation he has received by the Muslim community in his jurisdiction.  When asked by Rep Cravaack if he knew that CAIR, an organization that the Sheriff said he routinely deals with, was in fact a group of terrorists that was misusing him, he challenged the freshmen congressman and the FBI to indict CAIR, saying “I'm an elected official as you are.  If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forward and try them in court and deal with it that way. ”  

Sheriff Baca went on to say that he has a good relationship with the Muslims in his area, as well as the FBI, and maintaining this state of affairs was essential for fulfilling his duty of protecting the people in his jurisdiction.  

Still others questioned the authority of those called to testify on the subject at hand, dismissing their input as anecdotal evidence at best.  Two witnesses talked about their own experiences with radicalization of young Muslims.

Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community leader from Minneapolis, MN presented testimony about his nephew, who was killed in  Somalia after traveling there to join Al Shabab, a militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda that is fighting the de-facto government in Mogadishu.  Melvin Bledsoe, whose son converted to Islam and was allegedly radicalized while jailed at the behest of FBI agents in Yemen, testified that upon his release and return to the US, his son attacked an Army recruitment center in Little Rock, killing one officer and wounding another.

Bledsoe blamed the Muslim community in Nashville.  He said the community there radicalized his son, convincing him to travel to Yemen and become a terrorist.  But he also seemed to harbor a general malice towards Islam, saying “We must stop these extremist invaders from raping the minds of American citizens on American soil. Here in America today, there are people with radical Islamic political views who are organizing with one goal in mind: to convert our citizens and to turn them against the non-believers. ”

Both cases however can be said to have involved a substantial foreign influence if not equipment and training: the young man that joined Al-Shabbab was a refugee from Somalia, and ended up returning there to carry out his attack, while the shooter in Little Rock was trained and at least partially radicalized in Yemen.  Indeed, the specter of a “lone-wolf”, a radicalized Muslim in America, was dismissed as unimportant by Sheriff Baca, saying “There is always help.  Rarely does anyone have enough smarts to pull off one of these attacks on their own.”  He went on to express his concern that an increasing number of crimes are being committed by non-Muslim extremists in the country.

But the most passionate criticism of the hearing came from Rep. Al Green (D-TX), who took aim at those among his colleagues in the House, and the panel of witnesses invited to testify, who seemed to lack an understanding of the effect of the hearing on the wider discourse around race in the country, saying “I wanna say I have no problem in discussing terrorist organizations that are rooted in religion, which is why I wanna discuss the KKK.  The KKK requires that its members profess a belief in Jesus Christ.  The KKK says that the Christian faith is the white man's religion.  The KKK says Jews are the people of the antichrist.  We have had one hundred years of terrorism perpetrated by the KKK but not a single hearing...I must tell you, it is not enough for things to be right, they must also look right. ”

Rep. King has said he intends to continue with further hearings into the issue.  If today was an indication of what is to come, the future may produce even more emotionally, politically and racially divisive hearings.