Few fireworks at hearing examining civil rights of American Muslims

March 29, 2011

It was 90 minutes shorter, with noticeably less security and media attention — and fewer fireworks. But Sen. Richard Durbin’s Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday on Muslim civil rights featured the same partisan sparring and many of the same arguments as Rep. Peter King’s hearing on Muslim radicals just three weeks ago.

The hearing of the Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Durbin (D-Ill.) was a relatively low-key affair that saw witnesses and lawmakers in accord on the issue of protecting the civil rights of American Muslims – although some differed on whether hate crimes against American Muslims are on the rise.

The hearing room’s 80 audience seats were full, though most of the committee seats on the dais were empty.

While the Democrats on the panel all agreed with the hearing’s premise, there were some differences among Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he fully supported the hearing.

“This is a hearing that we need to have, quite frankly,” Graham said in his opening remarks. He noted that the committee was setting out to tackle a “difficult issue – what does it mean to practice religion in America?”

It means, he continued, that Americans must stand up for each other’s rights and religion, because “if I don’t stand up for yours, you won’t stand up for mine.”

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, said that he was “a bit perplexed by the focus of today’s hearing.”

“If we’re concerned about the most egregious hate crimes,” he said, crimes against Jews and Christians far outnumber those against American Muslims.

“Political correctness cannot stand in the way of stopping those who would do us harm,” he added.

Kyl’s sentiments echoed those of King (R-N.Y.), who in an interview with The Washington Post last week expressed concern that hearings like Durbin’s “could perpetuate this myth of victimhood among the Muslim community.”

“There’s still nine times more attacks against Jews than there are against Muslims,” King said. “We don’t live in a perfect country, but certainly Muslims aren’t the number-one victims in the country.”

Testifying on Tuesday were four witnesses: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington; legal advocate Farhana Khera, former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that dealt with civil rights and religious profiling; Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez; and law school dean Alex Acosta, former assistant attorney general for civil rights under George W. Bush.

All four testified that more needs to be done to combat hate crimes and rhetoric targeting American Muslims. Perez, who testified first, said that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice has investigated more than 800 incidents against persons perceived to be Muslim. The department has brought charges in 37 cases against 50 defendants, with 45 convictions, he added.

Soon after Perez’s testimony, the hearing did appear to swerve quickly into politics, with Durbin making reference to comments made in “the other chamber” -- the King hearing -- and Graham peppering Perez with questions and criticisms about the cases the Obama Justice Department is choosing to take.

Graham criticized as “overreaching” some of the cases involving Muslims, including the recent case of a small town math teacher who was fired for taking three weeks to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

“The fact that you took this case up will do more harm than good,” Graham told Perez.

Perez attempted to compare the case with one prosecuted during the Bush years, but Graham again interrupted him.

“They were wrong too! Is it okay to disagree with the Bush administration? A lot of people have been doing it lately,” Graham said with a grin, looking at the press table.

The exchange was one of several instances during the hearing in which Bush’s name came up – although usually it was in a positive light.

“I had my differences with President George W. Bush,” Durbin said in his opening testimony, “but he showed real leadership after 9/11, when he made it clear that our war was with the terrorists who perverted the teachings of Islam, not with Muslims who were faithful to what he called, quote, ‘a faith based upon love, not hate.’”

In his testimony, McCarrick, an internationally-known voice on peace and justice issues, drew a parallel between the experiences of Catholics and those of American Muslims.

“Catholics have been explicit targets of the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing Party,” McCarrick said. “The very idea of a Catholic in the White House was questioned. Because of this history, we cannot help but be sensitive to the experiences of other religious groups who suffer prejudice, bias and discrimination.”

As the hearing came to a close, Kyl questioned Khera on a statement on the Web site of her group, Muslim Advocates, which counsels American Muslims not to speak to law enforcement officials without a lawyer present. Kyl also read a list of American Muslims who face charges of criminal activity. He asked if Khera stood by the statement on the Web, and if she believed those individuals should be prosecuted.

“I fully understand the threat that we are facing,” Khera responded. “Those who engage in criminal acts must be stopped and brought to justice, and every American has a civic duty to report criminal activity to law enforcement.”

At the same time, she said, “every American has the right to seek legal advice.” She noted that the legal system can be complex and said she saw nothing wrong with encouraging community members to seek legal advice.

Khera also cited EEOC data showing the number of complaints by Muslims is going up, and she said advocates for Muslim and Sikh community groups report anecdotal evidence that indicates religiously-inspired bullying of youth also is increasing.

The hearing comes as the Justice Department is stepping up enforcement against hate crimes involving Muslims and other Americans. The FBI was given an additional $8 million by Congress in 2009 for civil rights enforcement and much of the money went to investigating hate crimes, FBI civil rights officials say.

Congress in 2009 passed the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which for the first time extends federal protection to victims of hate violence on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

FBI data, which officials say is likely underreported and lags by a couple of years, has shown the number of hate crimes remaining largely stable for the past decade.

About 50 people waited in line Tuesday morning to get into the hearing. They ranged from high school students asleep in their coats to interfaith activists, undergrads interested in human rights and members of the Traditional Values Coalition, who handed out flyers saying, “Islam is not a religion. Islam is a geopolitical military system.”

The half-dozen high school students, visiting Washington, D.C., from Cupertino, Calif., said they came after not making it to a Supreme Court case.

Also in line was Priscilla Hsu, 19, who was doing a human rights internship in Washington while a student at Claremont McKenna College. She said the situation in the U.S. is “nothing like” that in other countries where people are taken political prisoner. But human rights is still an issue in the U.S., she said.

“With ethnic and cultural minorities, it’s easy to be marginalized even if the laws are there to protect you,” she said.

Also in line was the Rev. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who has advised the Obama administration. He praised the subject of the hearing, contrasting it with the hearing called by King to focus on Islamic radicalization, which Gaddy called a “witch hunt.” However, he noted that both had agendas.

“This hearing and the King hearing are somewhat engaging in posturing” by singling out Muslims, he said. “I’m sorry we had to have this [Tuesday’s hearing] but it’s important.”

There was no word on Tuesday whether Durbin was planning further hearings on the topic. King told The Post last week that he is planning another House Homeland Security Committee hearing in early June focusing on Islamic radicalization in the American prison system.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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