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Anxiety on all sides of upcoming House hearing on radicalization of U.S. Muslims

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 10:55 PM

In some ways, Zuhdi Jasser doesn't match the profile of the typical Muslim American. He's an active Republican who has supported the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is an advocate for Israel and says his faith harbors "an insidious supremacism."

Yet the Scottsdale, Ariz., doctor will be the face of American Islam for a Capitol Hill moment. Other than members of Congress, Jasser is the only witness that Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) has identified so far for his upcoming hearings on radicalization of American Muslims.

King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called the hearings to start March 9.

Although he initially spoke out to promote them, his decision in recent weeks to lie low (he declined to comment for this article) and to keep the witness list and precise questions quiet reflects the complexities of debating the problem, experts say.

Should the hearings focus strictly on hard data about American Muslim cooperation with law enforcement? Should they explore whether U.S. foreign policy helps breed radicalism? Can a congressional hearing in a secular nation explore whether Islam needs a reformation?

That final point is the core tenet for Jasser, a father of three, Navy veteran and former doctor to Congress.

Through his nonprofit group, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, he debates other Muslims and appears on mostly conservative media to press Muslim leaders to aggressively oppose a "culture of separatism." He wants clerics to disavow scripture that belittles non-Muslims and women and to renounce a role for Islam in government.

As the only non-legislator King has announced he will call, Jasser is drawing a lopsided amount of attention.

King will have a separate panel of congressional witnesses, and he has said he will call Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The Democrats on the committee will call Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has disputed King's contention that Muslims do not cooperate with law enforcement.

With a mostly top-secret list and the first hearing in a few days, anxiety is building among Muslim Americans and national security experts alike. Although some hope that it will improve dialogue, others fear it could set off more prejudice.

National security experts "are holding their breath that it doesn't explode. I've heard that from people on all sides," said Juan C. Zarate, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was security adviser to President George W. Bush.

Muslim leaders initially lobbied for King to halt hearings but are now debating whether to try to get on the witness list. Long-standing critics of Muslim American organizations have blasted King for including "apologists" such as Ellison, one of two Muslims elected to Congress.

Some national security experts say King's plan could exacerbate terrorism overseas by making U.S. Muslims appear persecuted, while others say King's reputation for criticizing Muslims makes him a problematic moderator. Others say King has needlessly courted controversy.

"The U.S. government should investigate domestic Islamist radicalization," Daniel Pipes, the Middle East Forum director who has written extensively on the threat posed by radical Islamists, said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, Rep. Peter King has proven himself unsuited for this important task, as shown by the gratuitous controversy he has generated over the mere selection of witnesses."

Into the void comes Jasser, who sits on the board of a nonprofit group that made two controversial films about the dangers of radical Islam. The Clarion Fund says on its Web site that the growth of the American Muslim population "is raising eyebrows from sea to shining sea. . . . And if you think that a growing Muslim population cannot threaten America, just look at Europe."

Jasser, a former head of the American Medical Association's Arizona chapter, is the personal physician to some prominent Arizonan, including former congressman J.D. Hayworth. Despite his work on conservative causes, Jasser says he has walked out of his mosque when politicians were brought in to speak.

Jasser has always been affiliated with a local mosque and briefly served as a spokesman for the Islamic Center of North East Valley in Scottsdale, where his children attend classes. He was involved in interfaith work in Phoenix, where some activists say he is an outlier among Muslims.

So what expertise or constituency justifies this medical doctor being the only non-congressman King has named? "A lifetime of practicing my faith," he said in a telephone interview.

To Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a progressive foreign-policy think tank, Jasser's rsum lacks any community leadership roles, any policy or academic expertise.

"These aren't people who we normally expect the policy process to produce," she said.

King faced criticism as soon as he announced in December that he would hold hearings on the threat of homegrown terrorism from Muslims.

Faith leaders, Muslim American organizations, the ranking Democrat on the committee - Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson - and some law enforcement leaders challenged the idea that Muslims should be the focus.

The subject is fraught with sensitivities on all sides. Some are horrified at Islam being singled out, while others want to ensure the religious aspect of terrorism is not ignored.

The potential for giving offense has led to some clunky language. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who conducted 14 hearings on everything from Internet radicalization to the Fort Hood, Tex., shootings without major controversy, said it was exploring "homegrown terrorism and domestic radicalization inspired by violent Islamist extremism."

Zarate, who calls Jasser "fantastic" because he offers an alternative, non-institutional voice, said the hearings could do damage if they create a sense that there is a divide between Muslim organizations and mainstream America.

"It would be a shame if the hearings didn't move the debate the country is having, both on how to combat violent extremism and also on Islamophobia."

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