The Peter King hearings on radical Islam (live blog)
The House Homeland Security Committee convened Thursday for much-anticipated hearings on radical Islam. The hearings, called by chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), featured a series of witnesses addressing the topic. We covered the hearing live; click on the links below for updates from the scene, and click here for more discussion on our "On Faith" blog.
Among those in the room was Asra Nomani, a Muslim feminist activist and former Wall Street Journal reporter. As people streamed out of the room, Nomani said she "liked the hearing."
"We don't have the hard conversations in the Muslim-American community" and are too tolerant of radical ideas and actions, she said. She called herself "as liberal as you can get" and said she was disappointed that the Democrats on the committee were so critical of the hearing's mere premise.
"We need to change so we can get rid of these ideologies," she said.
Four hours into the hearing, the third panel of speakers began. The speakers included three lawmakers: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), one of two Muslims currently serving in Congress; Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.); and Rep. Al Green (D-Texas).
Carson asked Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca for any suggestions he might have on how the committee "might better structure procedures to protect civil rights while maintaining effectiveness" in dealing with Islamic extremism. Baca responded that he believed in "bias-free policing" and "public-trust policing," adding, "I don't believe you can judge one Muslim for the acts of another."
A few moments later, Green spoke, getting to the heart of many of the Democratic objections to the hearing.
Wielding a copy of the Constitution, Green read from the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
"It is the first of the first," Green said. "The first. And I want you to know not only do I love America, I love the American people. ... And because I love the American people, I want to say in clear and precise terms: I have no problem with discussing terrorist organizations which are rooted in religion, which is why I want to discuss the KKK."
Green went on to note that 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 that Jews are people of the Antichrist. The KKK wants to preserve the true gospel, the gospel of the white man's religion."
Green's point, he said, was that "it is not enough for things to be right; they must also look right."
"Why not include the KKK in this discussion today?" he asked, raising his voice. "Why not have a broader topic that does not focus on one religion? It doesn't look right ... when we focus on one religion to the exclusion of others. That's the point being made."
Green was countered by one of the witnesses, Melvin Bledsoe, whose son converted to Islam and became a radical in Yemen.
"Today we are not talking at this hearing about KKK," Bledsoe said. "We're talking about extremist Islam, radicalization of American citizens. And I hope you get that day that you can be back in this hearing room. That's my hope."
Green also sparred with Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who took issue with the notion of including the KKK in Thursday's hearing.
"You have not suffered a cross-burning," Green said to Marino as Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the committee chairman, banged his gavel several times, demanding order.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a freshman, defended proponents of the hearing against criticism that they are attacking Islam.
"I'm not aware of anyone on this side of the political spectrum who is attacking Islam," Duncan said, noting that their efforts were focused on "Islamism." He added that he was "outraged" by the Obama administration's "continued failure to single out who our enemy is" and warned of the danger of Sharia law.
A few speakers later, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) spoke. A longtime Democratic lawmaker who represents a district with a large Muslim population, Pascrell noted that growing up, he "ate more Arabic food than Italian food." He called Islam "a beautiful religion," noting that "this hearing was not on Islam" but rather on the threat of radicalization and extremism.
"The extreme, many times, is in the eyes of the beholder," he continued. "When we don't understand the people, we are bound, all of us, to mischaracterize and to stereotype. I don't think I heard anything from any of the panelists ... trying to lead to a conclusion that we should start stereotyping more, or that we should start profiling."
Pascrell added that he was "convinced that this hearing would result in good, because when reasonable people would conclude that the greatest majority of Muslims, like every other community in this country, are patriots."
He also cautioned against painting all members of the Muslim faith with a broad brush.
"Some pretty bad people came out of some mosques," Pascrell said. "And some pretty bad people came out of Catholic churches, et cetera, et cetera. But we've got to do everything we can to avoid a wide brush, because it gets us nowhere."
Pascrell also defended the Obama administration, arguing that it was "foolish" to think that one administration "wants to protect us any less than another administration."
After Pascrell finished speaking, King spoke for one of the few times on Thursday. "Even after five minutes of that, Mr. Pascrell, I still love you," he said.
Shortly before 2 p.m., the hearing had wrapped up, more than four hours after it had begun.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), not Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), addressed the committee. We regret the error.
As the hearing stretched into its third hour, one of the few outbursts from the room came as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) criticized the event as "grossly incomplete."
"We are seeing a very skewed discussion. While I think these anecdotes are interesting, I don't believe these are experts," Speier said. A low wave of boos and hisses came from the room. Speier slammed the hearing for its lack of any law enforcement officials or representatives from the FBI or the Homeland Security Department -- except for Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca, called by the ranking Democrats.
She said that in addition to investigating Islamic radicalism, the committee might as well be investigating the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization. She also drew a parallel between the witnesses on the panel and her own experience as a practicing Roman Catholic.
"I'm no more prepared to speak about the pedophilia in the Catholic church because I am a practicing Roman Catholic," Speier said. "And I think we do need to have experts come here to speak on homegrown terrorism in this country."
"I'm not sure who else you'd like to solve this problem, but I think it's only Muslims that can do it," responded Zuhdi Jasser, the Muslim doctor who runs a small nonprofit group. Jasser emphasized the importance of the "intellectual lay community" in bringing about change throughout history, including in reforming the Church of England.
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) also criticized the hearing as "theater" and the congressional equivalent of "reality TV." She said she was "appalled" by the idea that "we have not gotten to a substantive conversation about how we define terrorism, how we define the whole idea of radicalization."
Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), a freshman, said that unlike Speier, he believed that those on the panel were experts and commended them for their "courage" and "conviction."
At one point, Jasser was asked what he hoped the hearing might accomplish. "I hope we see this as the beginning of a dialogue," Jasser said. "We have to realize that there are many Islams out there." He added that he hoped the gathering was a "pivot point" to "not allow just the revivalists to get the microphone but the reformists."
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son converted to Islam and became a radical in Yemen, said that he believed lawmakers on the panel were driven by "political fear, perhaps not getting re-elected or something."
"This is real," he said. "If you don't ignore that we have a problem, then you're inviting the problem to come again."
The crowd seemed to gain energy -- 3 1/2 hours into the hearing -- when the subject turned to the legitimacy of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Cravaack repeated allegations constant in the conservative blogosphere that the advocacy group is governed by terrorist organizations collaborating with outlawed groups like Hamas.
"Basically, you're dealing with a terrorist organization. They might be using you, sir, to implement their goals," Cravaack told Baca, who represents the largest sheriff's department in the country.
Baca, who has been outspoken in recent weeks about his strong collaboration with Muslim American organizations, triggered something like a group gasp when he said, "If the FBI has any charges against CAIR, let the FBI bring them. You have facts, and you have a crime. Deal with it. We don't play around with criminals in my world. If CAIR is a 'criminal organization,' prosecute them and bring them to trial."
CAIR was used as a lightning rod during the hearing, sort of a proxy for the often cited but unnamed "Muslim organizations" that King and several of his witnesses said were the problem and were encouraging innocent, patriotic Muslim Americans not to work with law enforcement.
Baca added that "you don't want to cause a conflict between me and the FBI. We work together better than perhaps this committee works together."
"That would be an understatement at this point," Cravaack replied, to laughter from the hearing room.
King chimed in a few moments later to note that he believed the committee usually worked well together.
--Felicia Sonmez and Michelle Boorstein
As the hearing continued, more Democratic lawmakers took aim at the gathering itself for what they said was over-focusing on American Muslims.
"I believe the narrow focus of this hearing is discriminatory, and it is an abuse of power," said Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.).
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), meanwhile, asked for thoughts from the panelists on how to combat the use of the Internet and other technologies by terrorist organizations overseas.
Jasser responded that "we need your support to do that and we can do it with the right resources." He said that the U.S. strategy so far has been to try to break down Islamist propaganda. "That's wrong," he said. "Look at what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. That was simply through social networking."
Jasser also criticized the investigation into the Fort Hood attack and others for not specifically mentioning the words "Islam" or "jihad."
"It's like trying to treat cancer without saying the word," Jasser said, adding: "We've surrendered the constitution to the jihadists."
Two freshman lawmakers, Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), were among those asking questions at the hearing.
Richmond, who is African-American, said that it worried him that people who had never been victims of profiling "are quick to suggest that that is a legitimate crime-fighting tool when it's irresponsible and not the smartest way to fight crime."
He asked Jasser whether there might be people using the hearing to say, "This is evidence of America's war with Islam." Jasser said that that could be so, but reiterated his point that it's necessary to talk about Islam by name.
"If it's a theopolitical movement, how else do we counter it? ... How do we even fight that if we can't even discuss it because we're afraid of offending sensibilities?" he asked.
Jasser cited statistics that of the 220 terror arrests over the last several years, 180 suspects were Muslims. Richmond responded that "every terror plot is important. Every life that's lost is important. I would not consider it a waste of time to consider talking about extremists of any fashion."
Clarke, a freshman whose father was from Bangladesh and whose mother is African-American, touched on his own personal experience, growing emotional as he spoke.
"My father, who cared for me, who loved me, was a Muslim. ... Most importantly, what I remember was that his love for people was based in his faith in God. In order for us to make sure that 9/11 never, ever happens again, I urge all of us as members of Congress to make our decisions based on sound intelligence, not on profiling, not on stereotyping, which could lead and fuel more hatred and more bigotry," Clarke said.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) also drew on personal experience in his questioning, noting that when he served in the Marine Corps, he was taught to "know your enemy, and I think that's extremely important." He added that the current enemy is "Islamisists" and emphasized that none of the lawmakers who supported the hearing are "Islamophobic;" rather, he said, they are focused on "a radicalization which is a tremendous, tremendous national security problem."
For the first time in the hearing, the witnesses were allowed to engage in a question-and-answer session with members of the committee. Some tense exchanges ensued.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the panel's ranking member, said that there is a "school of thought that we ought to profile all Muslims in America." He then asked several of the witnesses whether they agreed with the notion of profiling.
"I don't agree with blind profiling; that's unconstitutional," Zuhdi Jasser said, before Thompson abruptly cut him off. Jasser is a prominent physician and Navy veteran from Scottsdale, Arizona
"I'm twenty-thousand times against the profiling of not only Muslims but any group," Bihi said in response to the same question.
Thompson then warned that by focusing specifically on Islamic radicalism, "you run the risk of profiling law-abiding citizens in this country who just happen to be Muslim."
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) spoke next, noting that he has been on panels investigating issues including the continued presence of Nazi war criminals in the U.S., the wartime relocation of Japanese-Americans; the problem of youth gang violence; and the unsolved murders of African-Americans in the South. In each of those cases, Lungren said, the panel's work was focused specifically on each issue and did not broaden it past that, as some have advocated King's hearing should have done.
Lungren then asked Abdirizak Bihi whether imams in his community helped or hurt him when his nephew disappeared. Bihi is a Somali-American activist who works with youths in Minneapolis's large Somali community and whose nephew was killed in Somalia in 2009 after becoming a radical and joining a militant group there.
Bihi responded that Muslim leaders in his community strongly warned him not to go to law enforcement when his nephew vanished. Bihi said that the leaders told him the FBI and police "don't care about you" and that he could hurt Muslims' reputation and harm mosques if he went forward, and that if he did that, "you will have internal fire and hell."
"They threatened me, intimidated me, and not only me but whole families," Bihi said.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), whose Orange County district is home to a large Muslim-American population, was the next lawmakers to question the panelists. She pressed Jasser on how Muslim-Americans might be expected to respond to the FBI, noting that "if the FBI comes late at night knocking on your door, you tell them that you'd like to meet them at some other place at some other time with your attorney."
Jasser responded to Sanchez that "when that discussion that you just went through dominates the entire discourse ... it creates a narrative that it's anti-Muslim."
Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff, responded by noting the "core values" of the Los Angeles police force include having the "courage to stand against racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms." Citizens need to know that "no police officer, no sheriff ... will ever step outside of the American legal system in doing their job," he said.
"My first outreach to the community is to say, 'If you don't have an encounter with my deputies that is within those core values, then I need to know about this,'" Baca added.
At one point, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) took issue with Thompson's statement that there are some who have said there are "too many mosques" in the country, contending that no members of the panel have said that.
King quickly interjected, noting that he himself has said that there are too many mosques that don't cooperate with law enforcement, but that "I never said there were too many mosques in America." (King has been quoted as stating that there are "too many mosques" in the country, a statement that he has clarified as applying only to the number of mosques that do not cooperate with law enforcement.)
At another point, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) held up a Constitution. "I will tell you today that this breathing document is in pain," she said, before going on to ask the panelists how many of them are Muslim. Several raised their hands.
"Muslims are here cooperating," Lee proclaimed. "They are doing what this hearing is suggesting that they do not do. ... Where are the uncooperative Muslims?"
She added that the hearing takes the country down a dangerous path, down "the same route of an Arizona and other states." After a few contentious minutes, the hearing room erupted into laughter when Lee finally stopped interrupting King and his gavel.
"I yield back," she says, and was quiet.
--Felicia Sonmez and Michelle Boorstein
After the three lawmakers testified, with no question-and-answer session, the hearing moved on to the next panel of witnesses. They were Zuhdi Jasser, a prominent physician and Navy veteran from Scottsdale, Arizona, who founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy after the Sept. 11 terror attacks; Marvin Bledsoe, a Memphis man whose son converted to Islam, became a radical in Yemen and in 2009 fired shots at a Little Rock military recruiting center; Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali-American activist who works with youths in Minneapolis's large Somali community and whose nephew was killed in Somalia in 2009 after becoming a radical and joining a militant group there; and Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff who was called by Democrats and who has spoken out in recent weeks to criticize the hearing's premise that Muslims aren't cooperative with law enforcement.
The panel spoke as the hearing room remained packed with audience members; the room was very narrow, but very high, adorned with engraved light fixtures, mustard drapery and security people every few feet.
Baca cited statistics that since the Sept. 11 attacks, domestic and international terror plots by non-Muslims have happened twice as frequently as those by non-Muslims. He criticized the premise of the hearing as "counterproductive," charging that it "plays directly into the terrorists' propaganda that the West's war against terror is a war against Islam."
Both Bledsoe and Bihi blamed local Muslim leaders for the fates of their sons and nephews. Bledsoe said that the former imam of a Nashville mosque, Al Faroop Mosque, wrote the recommendation letter for his son to go to a school in Yemen that was a front for a terrorist training camp.
"Something is wrong with the Muslim leadership in Nashville," Bledsoe said. "What happened to Carlos at those Nashville mosques isn't normal."
"It seems to me that the American people are sitting around and doing nothing about Islamic extremism, as if Carlos' story and other stories told at these hearings aren't true," he continued. "There is a big elephant in the room, but our society continues not to see it."
King asked Jasser whether he saw the experiences of Bledsoe and Bihi as "isolated cases." Jasser responded that "the vast majority of mosques are places where all of our families go worship. ... Not only are they not a threat, but they would report anything they see." He cautioned, however, that there's "an ideology that exists in some mosques" that is worrisome, and that it is not confined to the idea of violent extremism.
"It is about that separatism -- that idea that the Islamic state precedence; Islamic law takes precedence over American law," Jasser said.
He added: "I think it's time ... to awaken the silent Muslim majority that exists there that loves this country, that should do some self-repair instead of turning a blind eye."
--Felicia Sonmez and Michelle Boorstein
After the opening statements by King and Thompson, the three participants in the first panel, Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), spoke next. Ellison is the first Muslim-American elected to Congress and one of two Muslims currently serving; Dingell represents a district with a large Muslim population; and Wolf currently oversees the budget of the FBI and the Justice Department through his work on a House subcommittee.
Dingell noted his role as the Dean of the House, the longest-serving member of the lower chamber. He said that Muslims are "a community that demagogues continue to mischaracterize and misrepresent, to the detriment of all of us."
Dingell also said that he would keep a photo of Joseph McCarthy on his desk as a reminder and warning of what not to become. "This hearing must not be permitted to recall the evils of McCarthyism and the divisiveness and ill-will it created amongst our people," he said. He added that he wanted to make "unequivocally clear for the record: Islam is not a religion of division and intolerance, but a religion that values diversity and understanding."
Ellison spoke next, delivering testimony that was more animated and emotional than most of the other speakers thus far, speaking more informally and emotionally from the outset.
"I will make three points today," Ellison said. "First, violent extremism is a serious concern to all Americans, and is the legitimate business of this Committee. Second, this Committee's approach to violent extremism is contrary to American values, and threatens our security. Finally, we need increased understanding and engagement with Muslim American communities to keep America safe."
Ellison warned that "ascribing the evil acts of a few individuals to an entire community is wrong; it is ineffective; and it risks making our country less secure." He noted that American Muslims are "doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, factory workers, cab drivers, law enforcement officers, professors, firefighters, and members of the armed forces," adding that 29 Muslims died in the World Trade Center and three died onboard the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
Toward the end of his testimony, Ellison grew visibly emotional when he described the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic and police cadet from New York City.
Hamdani was one of the first responders who lost their lives in the September 11 terror attacks.
"Mr. Hamdani bravely sacrificed his life to try and help others on 9/11," Ellison said, his voice cracking. "After the tragedy some people tried to smear his character solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers only because he was Muslim. It was only when his remains were identified that these lies were fully exposed."
As Ellison spoke, people stood up from the packed rows to try to see him. It was a jarring moment in the staid, formal setting. King showed little emotion as the man sitting directly in front of him broke into sobs. King looked at the papers before him, to others in the room; it wasn't possible to gauge his own internal reaction.
The rows of cameras and videocameras snapped closer and faster as Ellison choked through his statement and then hustled out of the room.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Calif.), sitting three seats to King's left, asked for the chance for all committee members to speak, given the emotion of the topic, but King denied a change in structure and within seconds the next witness - Wolf - was at the table before the cameras.
--Felicia Sonmez and Michelle Boorstein
House Homeland Security Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) and Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) gave their opening statements in a hearing room where videographers packed in every open inch, roaming, taping the faces of many women with headscarves.
King acknowledged the controversy surrounding the hearing from the get-go and assured the audience that he would not back down.
"Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward, and they will," King said. "To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee-- to protect America from a terrorist attack."
He went on:
"This Committee cannot live in denial which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to al-Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al-Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al-Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department's own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups."
King closed by saying that as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, "we cannot allow the memories of that tragic day to fade away. We must remember that in the days immediately following the attack, we are all united in our dedication to fight back against Al Qaeda and its ideology."
Thompson spoke next, starting off by reiterating his "belief that a hearing on the linkage between extreme ideology and violent action should be a broad-based examination."
"As members of Congress, our words transcend this hearing room. We must be vigilant that our words and our actions do not inflame," he said. "Acknowledgment of an obligation to be responsible does not equal political correctness."
Thompson cautioned that as the country is waging two wars, "our words and actions cannot be used to endanger our soldiers."
"I have heard concerns that today's hearings will stoke a climate of fear and distrust in the Muslim community," he continued. "It may also increase fear and distrust of the Muslim community. For law enforcement officials, outreach and cooperation may become more difficult."
-- Felicia Sonmez
With about 90 seats in the beige-walled, chandeliered hearing room -- small for a hearing of this size -- space was very tight. Imams packed up next to rabbis next to human rights lawyers who bused in overnight from New York City. A long skinny table up against the wall was jammed with reporters.
Security was tight in the hallways, where more than 100 people had started gathering at 7 a.m. for a spot.
An advance copy of Rep. Peter King's opening statement said opposition to his hearings has ranged from "measured and thoughtful" to "paroxysms of rage and hysteria."
"Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings," the statement read. "This Committee cannot live in denial which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus," the statement read. "Only al-Qaida and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation."
He said the family members he will call are "brave men who have endured suffering no father or uncle should ever have to go through. Their courage and spirit will put a human face on the horror which Islamist radicalization has inflicted and will continue to inflict on good families, especially those in the Muslim community."
-- Michelle Boorstein
In a steady, light rain, two protesters stood outside the Cannon House Office Building. Virginia Spatz, a Chicago native who has lived in the D.C. area for 25 years, held a sign that said "Pluralism or Perish."
"I don't want this hearing to go on without some kind of visible protest," Spatz said. "All religious people should be horrified that one religion is being singled out like this."
Next to her, Galen Muhammad of Forestville, said that he'd heard leaders in Muslim religious services tell congregations that anyone with radical ideas should leave and spend their life on a desert island, where they can't hurt anyone. The message was that so many Muslims had emigrated to America for freedom: "Don't mess it up for us," Muhammad said.
"I don't know who the criminals in the Muslim community are," said Muhammad, who is Muslim. "Because they're not going to come to law-abiding Muslims and tell us they're going to commit a crime."
-- David A. Fahrenthold
By 8:30 a.m., a line of about 100 people had already formed on the third floor of the marble-floored Cannon House Office Building. Police officers were everywhere.
The first three people in line were women from New York, including Aisha Ghani, 30, a Muslim Ph.D. student in national security at Stanford who took the overnight bus from New York to "bear witness to what must be the most absurd moment in American history."
"Even if this is under the guise of something reasonable, there is no question this is about Islam," she said. American Muslims do not pose a threat, and the King hearings, she said, are about justifying and making "normative" Islamophobia.
With her was Amna Akbar, 32, a Muslim human rights lawyer based at New York University. She called the hearing "political theater" meant to distract from the failed war on terror.
Akbar also questioned how real the actual rise is in homegrown jihadis.
"Ten years after 9/11, there isn't much to show for the war on terrorism, so the FBI is constructing and writing the plot by entrapping people so that they can point to something to justify wars abroad," she said.
-- Michelle Boorstein
More coverage from PostPolitics:
- Interactive: Highlights from the King hearing
- How should we talk about Islam in America?
- Fact Checker: King's misleading claim on radical imams
- Full coverage from the Post's On Faith
- The King hearings: The witness list
- King's past views on IRA draw ire
- King takes to CNN show to defend hearings
- Japanese Americans: Radical Islam hearings 'sinister'
- Cantor defends King hearings on radical Islam
- Crowds rally in NYC on the weekend before the King hearings
- White House praises Muslims ahead of hearings
| March 10, 2011; 3:00 PM ET
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