It was 90 minutes shorter, with noticeably less security and media attention — and fewer fireworks. But Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s hearing Tuesday on Muslim civil rights featured the same partisan sparring and many of the same arguments as Rep. Peter T. King’s hearing on Muslim radicals just three weeks ago.
Despite the comparative lack of attention — at least in punditland — the session chaired by Durbin (D-Ill.) made history as the first congressional hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims. About 50 people waited in line for the door of 226 Dirksen Senate Office Building to open, including a half-dozen high school students who had been sleeping on the floor since about 7 a.m.
Like the Homeland Security Committee hearing chaired by King (R-N.Y.), Tuesday’s Judiciary subcommittee session attracted Muslim leaders, civil liberties attorneys, curious graduate students and advocates for everything from conservative Christian marriage to interfaith tolerance.
Unlike King’s hearing, which deliberately focused on the individual experience of witnesses whose families were torn apart by Muslim radicalization, Durbin’s session attempted to make a point based on data: That civil rights violations against American Muslims are on the rise.
There’s little doubt that public rhetoric surrounding Islam has grown sharper in the past year, including by some political, military and religious leaders. But Durbin and witnesses — primarily lawyers who focus on civil rights issues — cited government data suggesting that discrimination cases also are rising in schools, at work and in other places.
“Regrettably, while nearly a decade has passed since 9/11, we continue to see a steady stream of violence and discrimination targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
He said anti-Muslim harassment cases are now the largest category of religious discrimination in education cases. In addition, there has been a 163 percent increase in workplace complaints from Muslims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since the 2001 attacks, Perez said.
The 80 seats in the audience were immediately filled, but most of the seats on the dais were empty; just six of the members of the 11-person (and brand new) Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights came to the body’s first hearing. Only Durbin and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) stayed throughout.
Ranking Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina set the GOP tone for the hearing, saying at its opening that it needed to be held to defend Muslims’ rights. However, he quickly shifted his posture from empathic to challenging.
“I will stand with you in your right to practice your religion,” he said to American Muslims, but he added that they must “get into this fight” against radicalization. “I am asking you to get in this fight as a community, to protect your young people and your country.”
Graham shifted his focus to politics, accusing the Obama administration — via Perez — of overreaching in some of the cases the Justice Department is pursuing that involve American Muslims, including the recent case of an Illinois math teacher who resigned after her request for three weeks off to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca was denied by her school district.
It was one of the few laughs of the hearing, with Perez attempting to argue that the Bush administration had pursued a similar case.
“They were wrong too,” Graham said. “Is it O.K. to disagree with the Bush administration? A lot of people have been doing that lately,” he said, grinning and looking to the press table. He left shortly after.
Throughout the hearing, Kyl challenged Durbin’s witnesses, saying at one point that discrimination against Muslims should be discussed along with “the obvious — that too many Muslim Americans are being radicalized.”
The hearing seemed to crystallize some of the key arguments made in current discussions about Islam: The importance of Muslims cooperating with law enforcement vs. some Muslims’ wariness of officials who they suspect of entrapment. Concern about discrimination against Muslims vs. concern about Muslims being discriminated against in their own community for being too outspoken against radicalization. Whether the rise in anti-Muslim incidents is being overblown when the vast majority of discrimination complaints reported to the FBI are about discrimination against Jews.
In line before the hearing was the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and interfaith activist who advises the Obama administration. He praised Durbin for bringing attention to rising anti-Muslim rhetoric but said both Tuesday’s hearing and the one presided over by King “are somewhat engaging in posturing.”
R. Alexander Acosta, dean of Florida International University’s law school and Perez’s predecessor under Bush, said today’s climate shows the Sept. 11 attacks remain close to the skin.
“Emotions remain charged, and the desire to blame remains high,” he told the panel. “Now is a good time to temper resolve with wisdom and to recall that if we are to remain true to our American ideals, we need to ensure that all people in this land are free to practice their respective faiths without fear of reprisals.”