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.