Pete King's Muslim hearings turned out to be relatively sane -- thanks to pressure from left
At the conclusion of his Homeland Security Committee hearings on "the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," GOP Rep. Peter King noted with obvious satisfaction that the hearings had gone better than they could have. And he was right.
The premise of the hearing was flawed from the beginning, focused broadly on the "Muslim community" rather than an infinite number of more specific issues related to domestic radicalization -- and, as a result, it didn't offer much in the way of policy guidance and left the impression that Muslims in America are an issue to be concerned about, rather than terrorism itself. To the extent that the hearings were, in the words of former Bush national security official Matthew Levitt, "semantically shaped to point a finger at an entire community," they may have been actively counterproductive.
But while there were some embarrassing moments from a few Republicans warning about the "danger of sharia law to the U.S. Constitution," the withering criticism from Democrats, civil liberties groups, and religious organizations in advance of the hearing seemed to put legislators on their best behavior. King had even removed two controversial witnesses with histories of anti-Muslim remarks prior to the hearings actually taking place.
Both King and one of his witnesses, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, backed down from previous unsubstantiated remarks alleging that most American mosques were radicalized. That's important, because even anti-Muslim activists assumed that the plan was to filter conservative generalizations about Islam through Muslim spokespeople. Republican legislators prefaced their remarks carefully by stating that the vast majority of American Muslims were peaceful and law abiding, and that it was not the religion of Islam that was the problem. This approach was not a foregone conclusion given King's history of inflammatory generalizations about Islam, and the manufactured sharia panic sweeping state legislatures.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who had been called by Democrats, deftly punctured the myth that Muslims refuse to cooperate with law enforcement. The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that has been longtime target of conservatives because they were listed as unindicted co-conspirators in a terrorism financing case, was mentioned more times than any actual terrorist group at the hearing. When Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) accused Baca of "dealing with a terrorist organization," because CAIR's LA chapter had supported Baca's outreach efforts, Baca pushed back hard, saying "If the FBI has any charges against CAIR, let the FBI bring them. You have facts, and you have a crime. Deal with it."
If Republican legislators who deployed restraint are willing to tell their own base that Muslim Americans are not the enemy, the hearings may ultimately have a net positive effect on the audience most in need of seeing Muslims playing a positive role -- conservatives themselves. As Greg noted the other day, more than two-thirds of those who identify with the Tea Party movement see Islam as violent.
The framing of the hearings was still wrong, implying that radicalization is a widespread problem in the American Muslim community. In fact, it is the definition of a miniscule -- if still very serious--problem. As Adam Rawnsley reported, American Muslims who have participated in terrorist attacks are between "0.007 to 0.006 percent" of the population. While legislators in the hearing itself emphasized the patriotism and moderation of the American Muslim community, the way the hearing was set up still leaves one with the impression that the Muslim community is a problem to be solved.
Conservatives will be eager to argue that the outcome of the King hearings shows that all of his critics were overreacting in worrying about American Muslims being singled out as a group. Again, given the avalanche of anti-Muslim laws being proposed by Republican state legislatures, and the rhetoric of many conservative leaders, I don't think that's true.
But as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies put it to me yesterday, conservatives have every reason to empathize. "Many conservatives would absolutely have a fit if there were such hearings on right-wing extremism, just as they had a rather unjustifiable fit following DHS's controversial intelligence assessment on right-wing extremism," Gartenstein-Ross said. "The fact that conservatives felt so personally slighted by that report shows why they should be at least sympathetic to Muslims' real concerns in this instance."
King's hearings did not devolve into a circus or a witch hunt, and it's fair for King to point that out. A hearing holding American Muslims collectively responsible for terrorism was very clearly what some segment of the right wanted. But if outside groups hadn't been so critical of King and Republicans to begin with, it might not have played out that way.
| March 10, 2011; 4:28 PM ET
Categories: Foreign policy and national security, House GOPers
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