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The Circus Investigates Muslim Extremism

The Circus Investigates Muslim Extremism

By David Paul Kuhn - March 11, 2011

The first Muslim member of Congress wept. Two moderate Muslims, whose kin became extremists, called for confronting Muslim extremists. Democrats accused Republicans of painting all Muslims as extremists. Republicans framed Democrats as politically correct extremists. Lawmakers were careful to say most Muslims are not extremists. A Democrat lectured Republicans for investigating Islamic terrorism and not the KKK. Photographs of the World Trade Center attacks hung beneath the chandeliers. One protester wore a sign urging lawmakers to oppose bigotry. "We can call everybody a bigot or an Islamophobe," said an American Muslim doctor who testified, "but radicalization is a problem."

They were here to talk about the problem. But they disagreed on how to talk about the problem. It was the House Homeland Security Committee's hearing on the "extent of radicalization" among American Muslims.

Two radically different views of radicalism were on display. Is it appropriate to hold hearings on domestic Islamic extremism? Is it inappropriate to ignore what's Islamic about this extremism? Lawmakers, predictably, divided by party.

"This committee cannot live in denial," said the Republican chairman, New York Rep. Peter King. "Only Al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation."

"When you assign their violent action to the entire community, you assign collective blame to a whole group," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. The Muslim lawmaker saw the hearings as "the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating." Ellison concluded with the story of a Muslim paramedic who "bravely sacrificed his life to try to help others on 9/11." Ellison soon choked up, covering his face with papers at the conclusion, as he lifted his glasses and wiped his tears.

There was also Abdirizak Bihi. He is a Muslim Somali-American activist from Ellison's hometown of Minneapolis. A terrorist group in Somalia, affiliated with al-Qaeda, recruited Bihi's nephew and about 20 other boys from the community. His nephew died in Somalia.

Yet Democrats appeared unmoved by Bihi. Republicans appeared unmoved by Ellison. Both sides were entrenched.

Melvin Bledsoe told the story of his once "happy-go-lucky" son who converted to Islam in Nashville at age 19. The son went to Yemen and eventually returned. His son later allegedly shot two army troops outside an Arkansas recruiting station. He urged congressional action. "God help us; God help us," he said.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., went after the witnesses themselves. She said that these "anecdotes are interesting," of Bledsoe's and Bihi's story. She noted that hearing needed more experts. Then she asked a question of Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

Speier: "Do you believe that you have expertise to be speaking?"

Jasser: "That's the question the theocrats ask me all the time." He went on to cite his conservative Islamic faith, his engagement in the issue, as credential enough.

Bledsoe also responded to Speier. He said his story was not "interesting" but a "tragedy." His nameplate read "private citizen." And he acknowledged so much. Then he struck back. "I'm wondering, how do they get on the commission to speak about some of the things they are speaking about." That won laughter.

Bledsoe already accused "the other side" of being politically correct. "We're worried about stepping on [Islamic extremists] toes and they're worried about stamping us out," he added.

One Republican, however, veered into crass generalizations. Jeff Duncan, R-SC, began with the pro forma: "I'm not aware of anyone on this side of the political spectrum that is attacking Islam." Duncan subsequently said the primary issue he wished to address was "the threat of Sharia law to the United States Constitution." Sharia is Islamic religious law. To indict all Sharia, is to indict all Islam.

This was not Joseph McCarthy's Congress. But some might still ask, was the hearing befitting of Congress? It could have used other Muslim groups, more terrorism experts. There was Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. He warned not to focus solely on Muslim Americans. "This plays directly into terrorist propaganda that the West's war on terror is actually a war on Islam," Baca said.

Democrats pointed to an American Islamic group's study. It found that, since September 11, 2001, there have been 80 domestic-terrorism plots involving non-Muslims and 45 plots involving Muslims. Democrats saw proof that Muslims were not involved in the majority of plots. Left unmentioned, Muslim Americans are less than 2 percent of the population and, by this measure, accounted for more than a third of the plots. Also left unsaid, this country has a far less radical and far more integrated Muslim population than countries like England and France.

There was criticism of a placard and the group behind it. The controversial Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) distributed a poster in California that read, "Build a Wall of Resistance: Don't Talk to the F.B.I." The fluorescent orange sign was displayed on a stand beside the committee. CAIR was not invited to defend itself.

So went Thursday's unusual hearing on domestic cooperation and American Muslims. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, noted that two Muslim Americans were testifying. She deduced from her statistical sample of two that this was ironic. She asked, where are the uncooperative Muslims? None appeared.

Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif, advised lawyering up before cooperating. "As a minority, I would advocate to people, in particular minorities, that they should have their attorney present when being investigated, talk to, spoken to, addressed by the FBI,” Sanchez said, asserting that Jasser would use an attorney in these cases.

"Not all the time, no," Jasser replied. "I'm not constantly under fear from the government."

Thus the divisions endured. "Great congressional theater," said Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-NY, at one point. "Certainly the equivalent of reality TV."

Indeed, what we have come to expect from Congress.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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