Rep. King's unAmerican Hearings

Published in the Gainesville Sun, Tallahassee Democrat. Other newspapers around the state are also likely to publish this.

Ahmed, Romberg and Schlakman: Rep. King's unAmerican hearings
Published: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 1:46 p.m.

Before assuming the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee in January, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) announced his intention to hold congressional hearings on "the radicalization" of the Muslim community. The hearings begin on Capitol Hill this week.

According to a recent poll, while a majority of Americans support King's hearings, a larger majority says the hearings should focus upon extremism generally rather than upon the American Muslim community exclusively.

Some have observed that leveraging Congress this way is, "akin to racial profiling...that would unfairly cast suspicion on an entire group," and that these hearings offend America's proud tradition of religious pluralism and inclusion.
Others say this harkens back to congressional hearings in the 1950s that afforded Senator Joseph McCarthy a platform to exploit the public's fears by brandishing lists of alleged communists in what he characterized as his patriotic quest to ferret out unAmerican activities, with little regard for civil rights and civil liberties.

King contends, "When I meet with law enforcement, they are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders." But law enforcement professionals may not be called to testify. Perhaps he is unwilling to subject his underlying premise to their scrutiny in open proceedings.

King also asserts that, "Over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical imams," but Pew survey data indicates Muslims are "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes" and that Muslims in America are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate."

Moreover, a two-year study by Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina concluded that American mosques actually deter the spread of extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing the curriculum being taught.

It was a Muslim street vendor who thwarted the Times Square bomber, and Muslims in Irvine, California, concerned about the conduct of a fellow Muslim and his apparent efforts to incite violence reported him to the police, only to learn that he was an FBI informant. The so-called underwear bomber was reported to authorities by his father, who worried that his son posed a threat, and placed the safety of others over his own paternal instincts.

Such examples of intervention prompted U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to serve in the U.S. Congress, to note "about a third of all foiled al-Qaida-related plots in the U.S. relied on support or information provided by members of the Muslim community."

Can the Muslim community in America do more? Certainly, but this is not a one-way street. It will take more than congressional hearings to encourage American Muslims to be more proactive. Government officials must place additional emphasis upon developing relationships that build trust and confidence.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tasked America's U.S. Attorneys to prioritize this kind of engagement. Pamela Marsh, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, has taken a number of constructive steps toward this end. Secretary Janet Napolitano has established similar priorities for the Department of Homeland Security. So have others. However, many members of Congress haven’t even visited their local Islamic centers.

These issues are not limited to the federal government. State and local officials also have important roles to play.

The irony is that King's congressional hearings conceivably could result in more significant repercussions than Pastor Terry Jones' rather bizarre "International Burn A (Quran) Day," the fringe group event that was to take place at Dove World Church in Gainesville, FL, on September 11 last year, or his "International Judge the (Quran) Day" that is slated for March 20th.

While Pastor Jones' actions test the limits of free speech in America, King's congressional inquiry runs the risk of stigmatizing an entire community and carries the imprimatur of the U.S. government and misses a significant opportunity to explore meaningful and appropriate policy options to deter all forms of extremism by focusing exclusively on American Muslims.

The vast majority are presumably outraged when extremists commit heinous acts of terror in the name of Islam, and increasingly vulnerable to backlash in the aftermath.

Parvez Ahmed, is a Fulbright Scholar (2009-10) and associate professor at the University of North Florida and a frequent writer the American Muslim experience. Rabbi Jack Romberg leads Temple Israel (a Reform congregation in Tallahassee) and is a commentator on a range of social justice issues. Mark Schlakman is a lawyer and serves as senior program director at The Florida State University Center of Advancement of Human Rights.

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