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Rep. Peter King's Muslim hearings: A key moment in an angry conversation

By David A. Fahrenthold and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:56 PM

It won't be on the official agenda. It might not even be asked out loud. But it may be the most important question during a congressional hearing Thursday on homegrown Islamic terrorists.

How should America talk about Muslim Americans?

Even in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, public discussions of Islamic extremists were usually accompanied by a careful disclaimer that a peaceful religion had been hijacked.

But fueled by the Fort Hood massacre, controversy over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and a series of high-profile arrests of homegrown terrorists, conservatives in particular have grown increasingly bold in criticizing Islam itself. They have objected to mosques, banned sharia (Islamic law) and attacked passages in the Koran.

On Thursday, the discussion about Muslims' place - and Muslims' obligations - in American society will move to Capitol Hill. The hearing, called by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), could be a key moment in one of the country's angriest conversations.

"You can say things about this particular religion which you cannot say about any other religion in the United States of America," said Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University.

Ahmed said the hearings could either encourage or defuse a growing sense of suspicion aimed at Muslims. "We were blind to it. And now that it's surfaced, and it's out there, I think we're at a very dangerous moment in American history," he said. "It's like a boil, and it needs to be pricked."

King's hearing will start Thursday morning in the high-arched, chandeliered hearing room of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The title is "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response."

It's not the first time Congress has tackled the subject of homegrown terrorism. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) held 14 such hearings between 2006 and 2009, and then-Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) held six.

Public opinion about Muslims hasn't changed much in recent years. In the fall, a Washington Post-ABC News poll asked whether mainstream Islam "encourages violence." Among all respondents, 31 percent said yes, slightly less than the recent high of 34 percent in 2003.

What's different now is the tone of the discussion - in Congress and across the country.

In Lieberman's hearings, most witnesses preceded their comments by saying that the problem was not Islam itself. That was an echo of what President George W. Bush said just days after 9/11, when he went to a D.C. mosque and declared, "Islam is peace." The president's remark and others that followed had the effect of constraining criticism.

But now King has opened the door for less-restrained commentary with his own comments about American Muslims and their mosques. There are "too many mosques in the country," he has said, and he has alleged that nearly all of them are run by radical extremists.

On Tuesday, King told Fox News that he "will not back down whatsoever" in the face of criticism that he is demonizing American Muslims.

"The threat analysis is that the danger comes from this small segment within the Muslim American community," King said. "And, unfortunately, not enough leaders in the Muslim community are willing to face up to that."

A string of incidents

Across the country, the discussion about Muslims and terrorism has grown harsher over the past 18 months. The sharp turn began in November 2009 with the apprehension of an Army psychiatrist who is Muslim after a shooting rampage that claimed 13 lives at Fort Hood, Tex. Then a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, Faisal Shahzad, was convicted of an attempted car bombing in May in Times Square. Both said they were driven by their concept of Islam.

A Congressional Research Service report says there were 22 arrests of violent jihad suspects from May 2009 to November 2010, compared with 21 in the previous seven years. Another report, from a University of North Carolina professor, used different methodology to identify 120 cases that involved a threat from a Muslim American since Sept. 11, 2001. In 48 of them, he found, the initial tip came from another member of the Muslim community.

In the summer, a proposal for an Islamic community center near Ground Zero stirred bitter opposition. The pastor of a tiny church in Florida garnered international attention when he threatened to burn a pile of Korans on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

Oklahoma changed its constitution to "protect" it from sharia, although that change has been challenged in court.

This month, hundreds of protesters gathered outside a fundraiser for an Islamic group in Yorba Linda, Calif., to complain about two speakers at the event. Both men, protesters said, were sympathetic to radical causes in the past.

Afterward, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a video clip that showed protesters shouting "USA! USA!" as women in head scarves walked by. In another, a man yelled, "Muhammad was a pervert!"

Now, at this tense moment, comes King's hearing, which House Republican leaders support. It has also been hailed by an increasingly vocal cadre of conservatives.

Lieberman, in a telephone interview this week, said the questions King is raising about cooperation with law enforcement "are important ones, and real ones."

Frank J. Cilluffo, head of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former special assistant to Bush, said the hearings are worthwhile.

"From my perspective, there is an opportunity to be able to discuss in an open kind of way: Who is being radicalized? Why? What potential indicators are [there]? How can communities be better prepared to police themselves?" he said.

The witnesses

But the list of hearing witnesses makes it appear that a full answer to these questions is unlikely to come Thursday.

Two of those testifying have deeply personal stories about radicalization in America. One saw his son, a Muslim convert, arrested in a shooting that killed a U.S. soldier at a recruiting station in Arkansas. Another, a Somali American, saw a nephew turn radical: He joined Islamic militants in Somalia and was killed there.

Another witness will be Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim doctor from Arizona who has offered a critique of the Muslim community from within. Jasser has said Muslim Americans should alter what he calls a "culture of separatism" and a feeling of persecution.

King did not invite the leaders of any of the country's large Muslim organizations. And, despite his questions about Muslims' cooperation with investigators, he did not call anyone from law enforcement.

Democrats on the committee have called Leroy Baca, the sheriff of Los Angeles County. In the past, Baca has praised Muslim groups in his area for their help. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, also will testify.

In a sense, Muslim activists say, the day's most important witness might be King himself. His questions and his tone could become signposts for others about how Islam is viewed by those in power.

"The danger is, people who already have a negative view of Muslims or Islam will use this as a verification that they are correct in their views," said Robert Marro, who heads the government relations committee at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a Sterling mosque. "People think, 'If they're holding hearings, these people must be guilty. There must be fire if there is smoke.' "

Hedieh Mirahmadi, a Muslim activist who works to promote moderate Islam, said she also saw a chance for a useful dialogue that might reveal lessons for both Muslims and other Americans.

"If it's truly inquisitive, if it's a sincere desire to find out the information on what is going wrong in the community, to me that's not a problem," she said.

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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