WASHINGTON -- The latest hearing in a series designed to explore the roots of Islamist terrorism appeared to advance the ball little Wednesday as a congressional panel tackled community-grown radicals.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) opened the fifth hearing since March 2011 by noting that of 126 cases of homegrown terrorism since 2009, 90 percent involved people "in contact with or inspired by al Qaeda." The necessity of the hearings was "obvious" and should have bipartisan support, he said.
"From the moment I announced the hearings, I was attacked by politically correct special interests and their unthinking allies in the media," he said. Since the hearings began last year, "none of the nightmare scenarios anticipated by the media ever occurred. No religious war broke out."
Democrats on the panel, however, continue to object to the idea. They insist the forums have done more harm than good and, as Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said, "perpetuate the notion that the United States is at war with Islam."
The session Wednesday, called "The American Muslim Response to Hearings on Radicalization within their Community," featured a trio of Muslim witnesses, all supporters of the New York Police Department's surveillance programs now the target of a civil rights lawsuit filed by American Muslims earlier this month. They thanked King for his efforts to directly confront the threat of Islamist radicalization.
"This is not a civil rights issue," said Qanta Ahmed, a British citizen and Long Island, N.Y.-based doctor whose patients include World Trade Center first-responders injured on 9/11. "Just because you are scrutinizing the problem doesn't mean anybody's civil liberties have been violated."
She dismissed the fear that looking into Muslim radicalization would lead to World War II-style "internment of Muslim-Americans" and decried "the lack of nuance in political conversations" about the issue.
Zudi Jasser, the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a witness at the first hearing, agreed. "This ping-pong match between the extremes of 'all Muslims are our enemy' and 'all Muslims are victims', is stifling the teaching and the conversations that need to be had to fix the very real threat that Muslims who adhere to a militant form of Islamism present," he said in a written opening statement on Wednesday.
Jasser warned against "throwing up the white flag of surrender" because the conversation is difficult. Many Muslim Americans are "in denial" about the threat within their community and the "conveyor belt between Islamism and the very real threat of Islamist militancy," he said.
Asra Nomani, a former journalist who worked with slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, said the Obama administration is also in denial, calling its "policy of excluding" Islam as a factor in the Fort Hood base shootings and other extremist violence "naïve and very shortsighted."
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), agreed with Jasser's comparison of today's threat to that of the Cold War. "Communism, socialism, fascism and Islamism. Political ideologies," he said. "This hearing is not about Islam, but about Islamists using the institutions of Islam to propagate Islamism."
King quoted John Cohen, principal coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security who submitted a statement to the panel, as saying the greatest threat is posed by those from the West recruited to al Qaeda and its affiliates. "Ipso facto they are Muslims," the chairman concluded. "To deny there is any correlation between certain people of the Muslim faith" and Islamist extremism "defies credulity."
Thompson chimed in to note that in the next paragraph of his written statement, Cohen says, "we also know that violent extremism can be inspired by various religious, political, or other ideological beliefs" and cites the right-wing Sovereign Citizens movement.
But Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, and sole witness for the minority Democrats, cautioned against the government having "a role in talking about which version of Islam is good and which version of Islam is bad."
She cited numerous studies, including a Gallup poll that showed American Muslims are most likely among all religious groups to consider attacks on civilians as never justified and a RAND report based on 14 years of research that suggests "no single pathway toward terrorism exists, making it somewhat difficult to identify overarching patterns in how and why individuals are susceptible to terrorist recruitment.”
The government's response to terrorism, Patel said, "must be driven by evidence, not assumptions and stereotypes."
Thompson and other Democrats on the committee agreed and emphasized that King's witnesses were private citizens without "top secret" security clearances and could not opine authoritatively.
"We're not a talk show. This isn’t Oprah. This isn’t radio. This is the United States Congress," said Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.). She complained that without expert witnesses, the hearing was no different than a "community town hall."
A visibly perturbed King broke in, taking Richardson to task for having "such an elitist attitude that says we can't hear from real people." The chairman then added in an obvious dig that his colleague would have plenty of opportunities to hear from "bureaucrats" if she attended closed-door committee meetings. Richardson replied that she was "offended" by his reference to classified hearings, saying the criticism was "inappropriate in a public forum."
Several Democrats also wondered why other religious extremists weren't getting equal treatment. "Radical Christians" use the Bible to justify their bigotry, said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.).
Referring to Nomani's complaint that Muslim extremists at her mosque insisted on the strict segregation of the sexes, she said, "I was raised in a church that didn’t allow women to speak (and) used that as a way to keep women from rising to any position in the church. That didn’t go over big with me."
Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), a Roman Catholic convert and son of a devout Muslim who built one of the first mosques in Michigan, said "singling out" Muslims for such scrutiny "undermines those religious freedoms we all cherish in this country " and suggested it stoked the sort of religious hatred behind recent vandalism of a Sikh temple in suburban Detroit.
"The road to enlightenment is (to) not be holding more of these hearings," Clarke said.