By Luke Vargas
Rep. Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) series of hearings on radicalization within the Muslim-American community has been a continual source of controversy, and today’s final hearing was no exception.
Starting in March 2011, King has convened the House Homeland Security Committee on five separate occasions to investigate a wide range of issues pertaining to security threats arising among Muslims in the United States. Emblematic of the scrutiny King’s hearings have generated, a representative from the ACLU circulated a statement to the press signed by forty organizations and interest groups characterizing the hearings as “an affront to our fundamental rights and values” and as having “undermined our nation’s commitment to religious liberty.”
Chairman King had little sympathy for that argument, stating in his opening remarks that “the necessity of these hearings was obvious – and there should have been bipartisan support…Yet, from the moment I announced the hearings, I was attacked by politically correct special interests and their unthinking allies in the media.”
While past hearings featured witnesses from the law enforcement and military communities, as well as relatives of terrorists and terrorist victims, today’s panel consisted of American Muslim community leaders, doctors, writers, and lawyers tasked with voicing their responses to past hearings from the perspective of those who are, in the words of King, “in the trenches, people who live real lives.”
Ranking committee member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) disagreed with the necessity for the multi-year inquest, saying in prepared remarks that “given the challenges the nation faces in homeland security…I am not sure that a hearing to gauge the effects of our hearings is the most effective time and attention.”
A similar divergence of opinions at the hearing soon materialized between the witnesses themselves. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a former Navy medical officer and Islamic community organizer, stressed his belief that “in the wake of these hearings we have seen an exponential growth in the number of Muslims who are willing to courageously step forward in support of American values over Islamism.”
“If you label anybody that addresses this as an Islamophobe or a bigot, it stifles free speech, it prevents us from dealing with the very issue that we need to,” Jasser said.
Lawyer and NYU law school educator Faiza Patel immediately took issue with Jasser’s position, testifying that “rather than focusing narrowly on American Muslims’ reactions to these hearings, we would do well to consider the real experiences of Muslims in this country.”
Resolute, King stood beside the benefits of using religious affiliations as a starting point in criminal investigations, citing statistics that showed 90% of terrorist attacks have been carried out by Muslims. The chairman looked to historical law enforcement examples as evidence of the efficacy of narrowing in on certain ethnic communities when trying to sniff out violent individuals.
“The FBI went to the Italian social clubs, they went to the Irish bars on the west side of Manhattan, and now when they’re looking for the Russian mob they go to Brighton Beach and Coney Island,” King said, “That’s just good police work.”
At the first of the Committee’s hearings last March, Jasser’s testimony set him on common ground with King when he stated that “rather than thanking the FBI for ferreting out radicals within our community, they have criticized sting operations as being ‘entrapment’ – a claim that has not stood the test of anti-terrorism court cases since 9-11.” In his second round of testimony today, Jasser echoed that earlier sentiment and repeatedly drew contrasts between himself and Patel, who remained concerned that potential cooperation with law enforcement could be stymied if Muslim Americans feel they are being profiled.
“One thing that would serve as a disincentive to community cooperation is if [Muslim Americans] perceive that cooperation to be about their faith rather than criminal activity,” Patel said.
Legislators, particularly Democrats, quizzed the witnesses on their professional credentials for speaking on matters of radical Islamist ideology. Ranking member Thompson pushed Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a citizen of the United Kingdom, over her lack of security clearance, while Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) asked each witness to answer whether they had “any specialized knowledge or expertise on terrorism and law enforcement” that would lend their testimony credibility so the hearing could “[rise] to the level of the United States Congress.”
Unhappy with Richardson’s treatment of the witnesses, King retorted, “I don’t think we have such an elitist attitude that we’re only going to hear from people who have security clearances.”
To conclude the day’s proceedings, Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.), not a member of the committee, addressed the witnesses with the traditional Arabic greeting “As-Salam Alaykum,” noting his joy at being able to address his Muslim “brothers and sisters” in a congressional setting.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be Muslim,” Green said, “But I do know what it feels like to look like a Muslim in the minds of some people, and to be demeaned in a public venue.”