For more than four hours at a much-anticipated hearing about radical Muslims in America on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning, Democrats accused Rep. Peter King, (R-N.Y.) chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, of engaging in political theater, while Republicans spoke of the need to directly address the threat of radical Islam.
Republican committee members prefaced their questions to the panel with thanks to the chairman for convening an “important” conversation; California Democrat Rep. Laura Richardson called the hearing “discriminatory” and “an abuse of power.”
When King first announced that he would hold these hearings about “the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community’s response,” the debate began almost immediately:
Would the hearings be a helpful forum to address a real national security concern? Or would it be an overly narrow investigation that would simply fuel a negative view of Islam and Muslims Americans?
Everyone in the room on Thursday paid at least some lip service to how important it is to connect with Muslims. And the session allowed the committee to hear from and question a group of panelists who all have strong ties to the Islamic community.
The panelists were Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and Abdirizak Bihi, whose son fought and died in an extremist group of Somali Muslims—both devout Muslims. Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos Bledsoe, converted to Islam and is charged with the June 2009 shooting of two U.S. soldiers outside an Arkansas military recruiting center, has other Muslim family members. A fourth panelist, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, brought with him a Muslim member of the sherrif’s department whose job is to work with the Muslim community.
Yet despite a few unremarkable points of agreement—that the majority of Muslims in America are not extremists, that Islam is a religion that can be practiced in a non-extreme way, that extremist violence has not been limited to the Muslim community—the morning’s mostly polite hearing felt like a media showcase without much new content.
“This hearing today is playing into Al Qaeda right now, and around the world,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D - Tex.) said.
“We cannot ignore the phenomenon of domestic radicalization,” Rep. Frank Wolf, (R - Va.) told the committee. He listed a number of radicalized Muslims from, or with ties to, his district in Northern Virginia who either planned or carried out terrorist attacks. Wolf argued that certain groups have “lulled us into believing that radicalization couldn’t happen in the United States.”
Many of the Republican committee members spoke about the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties group that has been accused of having ties to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Late in the hearing, Rep. Chip Cravaack (R - Minn.) asked Baca if he was aware that CAIR is “a Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood entity.” Cravaack referred to CAIR as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a terrorist fundraising case, and said that the group was “misusing [Baca] to achieve their goals.”
Baca, who has worked with CAIR in the past, and been criticized for doing so, shot back, “We don’t play around with criminals in my world. If CAIR is an organization that is a criminal organization, bring them to court, charge them.”
Baca also noted that he has exhorted CAIR leaders to use their positions to fight against extremism within the Muslim community.
“If I were in your position,” Baca said to the group’s leaders, “I would post admonitions in mosques, if you have the ability, that advises the attendees that come to pray to not bring in extremist points of view.”
Congress members from both sides of the aisle also tried to strike notes of religious conciliation. “We have not only a Christian-Judeo tradition—we have a Christian-Judeo-Islamic tradition in this nation,” Rep. Brian Higgins (D - NY), said. “The prophet Mohammed was the prophet of mercy; in my Catholic tradition, I was raised by the Sisters of Mercy.”
Despite such attempts, numerous religious leaders—including many from the Jewish community—have decried the hearings as divisive and discriminatory.
The panelists at times were addressed as representatives of a true picture of the Muslim community in America, and at times dismissed as presenting only anecdotes.
In an impassioned testimony, Lee, the Democrat from Texas, pointed out the irony of discussing whether a community is or is not cooperative while two representatives of that community are participating in a congressional hearing.
“Muslims are here cooperating,” Lee said. “They are here doing what this hearing suggests that they do not do.”