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'Islamic radicalization' hearing stirs hornets' nest

Inquiry by congressional committee looks like inquisition to many Muslims

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Congress holds hundreds of hearings each year — and most generate more yawns than fireworks.

But the plan to hold hearings on the danger posed by radical Islam in the United States has inspired protest, counterprotest, debate, editorials, petitions and even pray-ins, before the first witness takes the stand.

The goal of the hearings, the first of which is being held Thursday, is "to establish and show the American people that there is a real threat of al-Qaida recruiting and of homegrown terrorists being self-radicalized within the Muslim community," according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

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He also charges that Muslim Americans are not doing enough to discourage extremists in their midst.

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Opponents say King is stoking anti-Islam hysteria at a time when the Muslim American community is already besieged by attacks on mosques, hate crimes and overzealous surveillance by law enforcement.

Many have compared these proceedings to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, which fed on fears of Communist subversion.

But King has not budged. He accused critics of being in deep denial of the threat, chiding them for seeking some sort of "kumbaya moment" with extremists and vowing not to bow to what he calls "political correctness."

Now the question is whether the hearings will produce a more secure nation or further alienate the roughly 2.5 million Muslims living in the country.

Check back for streaming video, live reporting and commentary on the hearing

"I think it's legitimate to hold hearings on any aspect of radicalization, and I'm not dismissing these hearings out of hand," said Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "At the same time, I would be concerned if an intentionally provocative approach to the hearings reduces cooperation with Muslim American communities, which is the opposite of Congress' intention."

'Going after radicals'
Proponents of the hearings insist that they are but one security discussion among many — in this case focused on young Muslim men who become radicalized and then pursue terror plots — not about all who practice the faith.

"He's not going after mainstream Muslims," said Steve Emerson,  executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, who has long warned about the danger posed by home-grown terrorists. "He's going after radicals."

But many Muslims, as well as leaders of other religious and legal advocates, reject the premise of the discussion — that Islam can be singled out as more prone to engender radicalization and violent extremism than other religions.

"By framing his hearings as an investigation of the American Muslim community, the implication is that we should be suspicious of our Muslim neighbors, co-workers or classmates solely on the basis of their religion," Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., wrote in a Feb. 28 op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

He compared the move to the roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II that led to the three-year internment of his own family. Many civil rights groups also say the hearings set a disturbing precedent.

"Congress should not be focused on First Amendment-protected beliefs and activities," said Farhana Khera, executive director of the San Francisco-based Muslim Advocates. "To the extent that you have Congress exploring violent extremism, it should be focused on criminal behavior. … What faith somebody practices or whatever variant someone practices would not be the proper scope for congressional review."

A coalition of 50 human and civil rights groups, religious organizations and Muslim advocacy groups appealed to King to cancel the hearings or frame them to look at all forms of violence motivated by extremist beliefs, but he rejected their call. 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent a letter sent to King on Tuesday urging him to "reconsider holding the narrowly focused and reckless hearings."

King and Muslims in his Long Island district say the congressman used to be a champion of the Muslim community, visiting mosques and attending their weddings and dinners. He was also one of a handful of Republicans who supported efforts to protect Muslims in the Balkans from aggression by Serbian Orthodox Christians.

But the congressman says he became bitterly disillusioned after 9-11, when some of the local imams rejected the idea that Muslims were behind the devastating attacks.

'Moral myopia'
They later recanted and denounced terrorism, but for King the events unveiled the "moral myopia … of the Muslim leaders and their apologists in the media."

  The many faces of Islam in America
The “melting pot” metaphor is apt when it comes to Muslims in America, as their shared faith is in sharp contrast to their varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

more photos

In op-ed piece in Newsday, the congressman describes his transformation.

King argues that the threat from Muslims in the U.S. has increased because anti-terrorism measures overseas have made it more difficult for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations to attack the United States from abroad. As a consequence, he says, the terrorists are now focusing on indoctrinating American Muslims to carry out attacks.

In an interview with NBC's Meredith Vieira on the TODAY show, King defended his belief, telling the anchor, "this is the same message that president's deputy national security advisor gave the other night. He said that al-Qaida has changed its strategy and it is now attempting to recruit and radicalize the Muslim American community. That's where the threat is coming from."

He points to recent plots: The failed Times Square bombing and the Fort Hood massacre, which were perpetrated by American Muslims influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States to parents from Yemen.

After coming under scrutiny by U.S. authorities for contacts with suspected terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, he moved to Yemen in 2002 and began broadcasting his extremist views over the Internet.

Nidal Hassan, the Army major accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, was a U.S. citizen born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Jordan. Although Hassan had exchanged email with al-Awlaki, experts have said he acted on his own.

Faisal Shahzad, who admitted attempting to detonate a car full of explosives in New York’s Times Square, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Pakistan. Shahzad trained with terrorist groups in Pakistan but told authorities that he was inspired by al-Awlaki through the Internet.

King maintains that 80 to 85 percent of mosques in the United States are led by fundamental Islamists — a figure that is broadly disputed — and thus set the stage for radicalization of young Muslims.

"Al-Qaida is recruiting right under our radar screen," King said last month in an interview with The Associated Press.

As soon as King became chair of the House Homeland Security Committee in December, he put the issue of Muslim radicalization at the top of his security agenda. He has said he intends to hold a series of hearings on the subject over the next 18 months.

By the numbers
The warnings about the threat of homegrown terrorism have grown louder over the past few years. But Kurzman, the UNC professor who specializes in Islam, said the data doesn’t support this view.

In a report published in February, Kurzman compiled the number of Muslim Americans who took part in known terror plots — both carried out and disrupted — since 2001.

There were 47 such plots in 2009, twice the number as the year before. But after that spike, the number fell again to 20 in 2010, within the range it had been in for most of the decade.

The study found that Muslims engaged in terror plots at a higher rate than non-Muslims, though still at a low level compared with overall violence in the U.S. — 33 deaths in the decade compared to 150,000 homicide deaths over the same period.

Kurzman has described the issue of radicalization as a serious but limited problem, involving a few dozen individuals over the past decade.

And he notes that of the terror plots that were disrupted, one-third to one-half of the tips to authorities came from others in the Muslim community.

"The problem of Muslim American plots has come from the fringes of the fringes of Muslim American communities," said Kurzman. "These are lone wolves and small groups, mostly disaffected from the mainstream of the local Muslim community. In some cases they have been kicked out or made to feel unwelcome in their local mosques."

"I would like to see them turn down the security paranoia," he added. "Muslims around the world are the best bulwark against terrorism, and we need to be cultivating them as allies, rather than maligning them."

John Esposito, a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, offered a blunter view: "Peter King is an ideologue who has hounded Muslims for years … (and) sees no reason to let facts or evidence get in the way."

Skirmish over the lineup
What comes out of the Homeland Security proceedings will in part depend on those testifying.

King bypassed all the Muslim organizations that have traditionally spoken for and about the Muslim community in the United States, including the Islamic Circle of North America, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, to name just a few.

Emerson, the terrorism analyst who is a strong supporter of King's hearings, charges that the exclusions are appropriate because these organizations are not "mainstream."

"Mainstream generally means moderate," he said. "The groups that purport to represent the 'mainstream' Muslim community are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood" — the world's oldest and largest Islamic political organization.

He also accused the media and Muslim organizations of stirring up fear over the hearings.

"I think there's been an extraordinary McCarthyistic attack on (King) by the media and 'mainstream' Islamic groups," he said. "They are the ones sowing panic … and the media is the prism by which this panic has been magnified."

But detractors note that King also has not tapped a single imam or social service provider, or a representative from numerous "anti-radicalization" programs that Muslim American organizations have created in the past decade to keep disaffected youths from embracing terrorism.

King also took flak as it became clear that no law enforcers would be taking the stand to substantiate the claim that Muslim Americans have been uncooperative in intelligence gathering operations. He said it was not a position that his sources wanted to state publicly, because of the sensitivity.

But the lineup will include Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who will say just the opposite — that he has nothing but excellent cooperation from Muslims in his community. He was invited to testify by minority Democrats on the committee.

A Muslim from the right
King has instead arranged for testimony from the heartbroken father of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, aka, Carlos Leon Bledsoe, responsible for the 2009 attack on an Army recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., that killed one and wounded another.

And he will call Zudhi Jasser, an America Muslim of Syrian descent and a physician in Arizona.

Jasser set up his own nonprofit, which seeks "to shake the hold Islamist organizations and mosques have on organized Islam in America."

Jasser believes that to counter radicalization of young Muslims, Islam should be purged of Islamist politics that he says fuel anger in people like Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood gunman.

"To measure (the threat) you can't approach it scientifically," Jasser said, referring to the data on violence committed by radicalized Muslims. "It's about countering an ideology that is at odds with Western ideals."

Jasser is a controversial figure among Muslims because of his frequent appearances on Fox News and his key role in the production of "The Third Jihad," a documentary alleging that "cultural Jihad" is being carried out by Muslim groups in the United States.

The New York Police Department used the film for training, but ended that because of complaints from both inside and outside the department.

Jasser, a Republican and former naval officer, is accustomed to the backlash against his views, but claims that there are many well-educated Muslims who share his views beliefs.

"Americans need to see that there is an anti-Islamist movement within the Muslim community," he said.

King interviewed dozens of people as candidates to testify. Many were dropped amid furious opposition: They included Ayaan Ali Hirsi, a Somalia-born Dutch woman and atheist who has declared that there is no such thing as moderate Islam; and Walid Phares, a conservative terrorism scholar and Fox News analyst.

  The many faces of Islam in America
The “melting pot” metaphor is apt when it comes to Muslims in America, as their shared faith is in sharp contrast to their varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

more photos

Critics were relieved when King announced that for this first hearing, at least, he would not be bringing in two prominent pundits on Islam who have large conservative followings but are seen as hostile by many Muslims — Emerson, and Robert Spencer. 

Spencer is a prolific writer on Islamic terrorism and the director of Jihad Watch, a blog that focuses on "Islamic jihadists, the motives and goals of whom are largely ignored by the Western media, to destroy their societies and bring them forcibly into the Islamic world."

Nonetheless, the line-up still points to hearings that will argue radical Islam is a clear and present danger within U.S. borders.

"Peter King's hearing is a staged event that will do little to shed light on the causes of domestic terrorism," said Esposito, the Georgetown University professor. "Instead the hearing will be a platform for Islamophobia draped in the American flag, reinforcing ignorance, stereotypes, bigotry and intolerance in the name of national security."

In advance of the hearing, some were attempting to tamp down the rhetoric.

On Sunday, the White House dispatched National Security Adviser Denis McDonough to a Washington-area mosque known for its cooperation with the FBI and its rejection of terrorism.

"Being religious is never un-American. Being religious is quintessentially American," McDonough said.

But as the hearings drew near, the volume surrounding them only seemed to build.

In New York's Times Square on Sunday and in front of King’s office, hundreds of people gathered to speak out against the hearing, criticizing it as xenophobic and divisive.

"Peter King, we are onto your game," said one protester. "Using fear and intolerance and targeting an entire community does not make any of us any safer."

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