Senate Chairman Dick Durbin raises a Catholic prayer book owned by his grandmother when she first came to the U.S. as he presides over the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, Human Rights, and the Law hearing entitled "Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims" on March 29. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

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Noon Update – Hearing concludes after testimony on religious bias from Muslims’ advocate, archbishop and Bush deputy attorney general

The second panel of witnesses included Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (the former archbishop of Washington and an internationally known voice on peace and justice issues), legal advocate Farhana Khera (former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that dealt with civil rights and religious profiling) and law school dean Alex Acosta (former assistant attorney general for civil rights under President George W. Bush).

In her testimony, Khera described growing up in a small town in rural upstate New York.

“At the start of every school day, like schoolchildren across America, I stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance,” Khera said. “The last line of the pledge affirms that we are ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ There is no qualifier. It’s simply we are one nation with liberty and justice for all.”

She said that “in the last several months, anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a disturbing new level. Prominent religious, military and even political leaders have joined the fray, feeding fear and hysteria, with some going so far as to say Islam is a cult, not a religion” – a point that previous speakers had noted, as well.

“Now, one just might want to dismiss these statements as silly and absurd, if not for the fact that the vitriol has real life and death consequences for Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans and their families. The message is clear: You are ‘not welcome’ – words that were graffiti’d last year on a sign for a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,” she said.

McCarrick testified next. He touched in particular of the experience of Catholics, noting that their “own history as an immigrant people and a religious minority is filled with stories of persecution, suspicion, fear and intolerance.”

“We have had our loyalty as Americans questioned,” he said. “We have suffered bias and discrimination for our religious beliefs, especially in the educational context. Catholics have been explicit targets of the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing Party. 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.”

He concluded that “as predominantly Muslim societies wrestle with how to treat religious minorities, let them look to our nation where we work to ensure that their Muslim sisters and brothers are treated with dignity and their religious identity and beliefs are treated with respect.”

Acosta then told the stories of two young American Muslims – Mohamed T. Al-Darsani, who decided to enlist in the military five months after the September, 11, 2001, attacks; and Nashala Hearn, who was told by her sixth-grade teacher that she was not allowed to wear a headscarf to class because it “frightened” other students. Hearn, then 11 years old, testified before the Judiciary Committee in 2004, Acosta said, adding that he authorized the Justice Department to intervene in the case.

The stories of Al-Darsani and Hearn, Acosta said, “highlight principles that make our nation great.”

“Now is good time to remember that no community has a monopoly on any particular type of crime,” he said, noting that the 10-year anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks is approaching. “Now is a good time to temper resolve with wisdom and to uphold our principles, as our former president did on September 11.”

Before the hearing concluded just before noon, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) 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. Did Khera stand by the statement on the Web, and did she believe that those individuals should be prosecuted? he asked.

“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.

-- Felicia Sonmez

11:25 a.m.: ‘The fact that you took this case up will do more harm than good’

The hearing room’s 80 audience seats were full, though most of the committee seats on the dais were empty. In contrast with Rep. Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) hearing in Islamic radicalization, when the room was jammed with security officers and a throng of photographers, Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) hearing was relatively staid.

It did appear to swerve quickly into politics, with Durbin making reference to comments made in “the other chamber” -- the King hearing -- and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) peppering Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez with questions and criticisms about the cases the Obama Justice Department is choosing to take, criticizing 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 hearing started with Durbin waving a small Lithuanian Catholic Bible he said his grandmother had when she first arrived in the U.S. -- a Bible banned in her home country because it wasn’t in Russian.

-- Michelle Boorstein

11 a.m.: ‘This is a hearing that we need to have’

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the subcommittee, opened up the hearing by noting that it was the subcommittee’s first.

“I think it is appropriate to hold the first hearing of this new subcommittee on what is often called the Constitution’s ‘First Freedom’ – the freedom of religion,” Durbin said.

He pointed to instances throughout history of religious minority groups having faced intolerance, “despite the framers’ best intentions.” He also drew on the experiences of his own immigrant family; Durbin’s mother immigrated to the United States from Lithuania.

“This backlash began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” Durbin said of the particular focus on American Muslims, adding that Attorney General Eric Holder has called the issue “the civil rights issue of our time.”

“I had my differences with President George W. Bush,” Durbin added, “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.’”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the subcommittee, spoke next.

“This is a hearing that we need to have, quite frankly,” Graham said. 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.”

Graham said that he was asking American Muslims to “get into this fight as a community and let it be known to your young people that there are lines that you will not cross. ... that we’re all in this together.”

“I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan enough to know that the biggest victim of radical Islam are fellow Muslims,” Graham added.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pointed to testimony by FBI Director Robert Mueller that in the past few years, “there has been a dramatic increase in the activities of domestic hate groups.”

“Some of these activities have resulted in attacks targeting the American Muslim community,” Leahy said. “To make matters worse, some leaders have sought to sow fear and divisiveness against American Muslims. Fanning the flames of hate against those with different faith traditions runs contrary to our American values.”

In the run-up to last year’s midterms, Leahy said, the rhetoric “grew even more heated and more threatening,” with some “on the radical right” suggesting that Islam “is somehow not a religion at all.”

“That is nonsense, and I would hope that Americans will remember why our Founding Fathers established this great nation when such divisive rhetoric is used for partisan purposes,” Leahy said.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) followed Leahy. Kyl said that he was “a bit perplexed by the focus of today’s hearing,” noting that “if we’re concerned about the most egregious hate crimes,” 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.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez testified next. “We continue to see hate crimes against Muslims – or those perceived to be Muslim – committed by those, who, in the words of Attorney General Holder, ‘use the twisted logic that an attack on innocents can somehow be avenged by another attack on innocents,’” Perez said.

He said that since Sept. 11, 2001, 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, Perez said.

Perez also noted that as he has traveled the country, he has heard from Muslim and Sikh parents who have said their children are the targets of bullying or harassment. “The good news is that with each wave of intolerance, our nation has indeed responded,” Perez said.

-- Felicia Sonmez

10:25 a.m.: ‘It’s easy to be marginalized even if the laws are there to protect you’

About 50 people waited in line this morning to get into what’s being called the first Congressional hearing on Muslim civil liberties. 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, here in 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 is doing 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 Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) 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 (today’s hearing) but it’s important.”

-- Michelle Boorstein