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King Not Fit to Lead

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PETER KING ISLAM HEARINGS

For all the fanfare and bluster, the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Homeland Security hearings on "The Extent of Radicalization in the Muslim Community and That Community's Response" produced little of value. The entire affair was so shockingly ill-conceived and so poorly executed as to leave one wondering whether the Committee's Chairman, New York Republican Peter King, was fit to lead.

Since King first announced the hearings, American Muslims, Arab Americans and a host of civil rights organizations feared that the effort could become a McCarthy-like witch hunt. And for good reason.

King has a long history of making virulently anti-Muslim remarks. For example, he once said "unfortunately, we have too many mosques in the country" and "85% of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living amongst us." He charged that unlike other groups, Muslims do not volunteer to serve America. And when challenged by a journalist who said "it is clearly not the truth" that "the Muslim American community is abetting and aiding... radicalism," King shot back "it is the truth."

Amplifying concerns about the Congressman's views were his strong associations with individuals who have made Muslim-bashing their life's work. They helped shape King's views, designed his approach to the hearings (although one member of this group publicly broke with King when he refused to invite him to testify at the hearings he claimed to have inspired and designed) and have helped to promote the effort on their websites or TV and radio programs.

Despite all the build up and fears for the worst, the best King could muster to make his case were the uncle of one of the young Somalis who was recruited from the U.S. to go to Somalia to fight with the group al Shabab against the Ethiopians, who had invaded the country, and the father of the young American who was radicalized leading to his involvement in the terrorist murder of a U.S. soldier in Arkansas. As tragic and condemnable as each of these cases was, they were unrelated anecdotes that failed to make the argument of widespread radicalization and the systematic failure of American Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement.

King's third witness, Arizona doctor, Zuhdi Jasser added nothing of value to the discussion. Jasser heads a group with few members and is best known as a Glenn Beck "long-time good friend." He serves on a number of boards of anti-Muslim propaganda groups and frequently appears on right-wing media outlets as their Muslim voice of choice since he can be counted on to attack Muslim organizations and to claim that Muslim Americans have become hostage of extremist ideologies and will not cooperate with U.S. law enforcement agencies.

The bottom line was that the best King's star witnesses could offer were two personal and tragic anecdotes and an ideological rant from a third.
 
For their part, Democrats were able to invite Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American Member of Congress, and Sheriff Lee Baca, the top law enforcement official from Los Angeles County. Ellison gave an emotional defense of the Muslim American community giving examples of Muslims who served the U.S. and specific examples and data demonstrating the community's cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

While Chairman King had based his hearing on the claim that unnamed law enforcement officials had told him that Muslim Americans would not cooperate with security efforts, Baca, the only law enforcement official on the panel, testified that exactly the opposite was true. He praised the community's efforts, turning back every challenge from hostile committee members with specific examples of cooperation.     

At the end of the session, two observations became painfully clear. The first was that King's effort did little to advance a thoughtful and data-driven discussion about radicalization. What also came through was the deep partisan divide that characterized the committee's work. Democrats berated the chairman for convening an unbalanced hearing that singled out and threatened to demonize an American religious community. Some Democrats called King's effort "McCarthy-like", while others chided the chairman for his failure to examine other forms of radicalization and noted the absence of testimony from experts who have studied the phenomena. 

For their part, King's colleagues on the Republican side did little more than "circle the wagons" around their leader defending his efforts. They thanked King for holding the hearings, excessively terming the sessions as "historic" and "significant".

The only bright spot of the day came in the immediate aftermath of the hearings when a group of leaders of major U.S. religious communities and organizations came together to announce the formation of "Shoulder to Shoulder" -- an interfaith effort to defend American Muslims. The group, which initially and informally came together last fall in the midst of the Park 51 controversy in order to defend Muslims against bigotry, has now formed itself into a permanent organization. Founding members include: the leadership of the National Council of Churches (representing the U.S.'s Protestant churches), heads of five major Jewish communities (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and the Jewish Community Relations Council), representatives from the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Conference, and more.

In the end, the King hearings were a bust -- a shameful and wasted exercise. They created fear and hurt among Muslims, provided no useful information for law enforcement, and deepened the partisan divide. They weren't even a good example of "McCarthyism". Instead they were ideological folly -- a suborning of an important committee's resources to serve the chairman's obsession with America's Muslims, calling into question his ability to provide effective leadership on matters of homeland security. 

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of  Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.