Who's testifying at controversial House hearing on radical Islam in US?

Radicalization in the American Muslim community is topic of a House hearing on Thursday, and witnesses are likely to offer competing views of the threat. Critics say it's unwise to single out Islam and the Muslim community.

Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Protesters gather at the "Today, I Am A Muslim, Too" rally to protest against a planned congressional hearing on the role of Muslims in homegrown terrorism, March 6 in New York. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says affiliates of al-Qaeda are radicalizing some American Muslims and that he plans to hold hearings on the threat they pose to the U.S.

Amid heightened security and expected protests, the House Committee on Homeland Security on Thursday launches the first in a series of hearings on the threat of radicalization in the American Muslim community.

Witnesses are expected to present competing views of the extent of this threat. Families of radicalized or “brainwashed” young Muslim Americans will tell of their efforts to find out what happened to their sons – and of the failure of Muslim organizations to help. In contrast, a Los Angeles sheriff will describe the strong ties he has developed with the Muslim community and how its members helped avert terrorist attacks.

According to the witness list, no law enforcement officials have been called to support claims by chairman Peter King (R) of New York that US Muslim leaders overall have not cooperated with the police or Federal Bureau of Investigation and have encouraged others not to help. Neither Attorney General Eric Holder nor FBI Director Robert Mueller are scheduled to appear. Both have spoken recently about how cooperation from the Muslim community has exposed attack threats.

Citing the 2009 terrorist attacks at Fort Hood in Texas and 2010 attacks in Times Square in New York, Representative King says that home-grown Islamic radicalism is a rising threat and that the Muslim community by and large has not helped meet it. “Federal and local law enforcement officials throughout the country told me that they received little or – in most cases – no cooperation from Muslim leaders and imams,” he wrote in a Dec. 19 opinion essay in Newsday.

But a February report by the Triangle Center on Homeland Security at Duke University found that in 48 of 120 cases of Muslim American terrorist attacks, the Muslim American community provided information that helped avert an attack.

By singling out the Muslim community, critics say, the House panel’s hearings will harm prospects for future cooperation, increasing the likelihood of radicalization and the threat of violence.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, challenged King for calling such a hearing at this time. As a result, the chairman asked him to appear as a witness.

“Chairman King is concerned about public safety, but he’s also putting out red meat to the [Republican Party] base,” Representative Ellison said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s a misuse of the gavel and unfairly targets the Muslim community.”

King isn’t the first to hold hearings on the threat of Muslim radicals in the United States. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held hearings on the “homegrown terrorist threat inspired by violent Islamist ideology” under the leadership of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine in 2006, with little objection. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut continued the investigation as chairman of the panel in the next Congress. House and Senate intelligence committees, in open and closed sessions, also considered the threat.

But critics say King’s prior statements about the US Muslim community have been unusually provocative. The timing of the hearings – coming after threats of Quran burnings, restrictions on headscarves, protests over a proposed Islamic center near the 9/11 site in New York, and GOP efforts in some dozen states to ban Islamic religious law (sharia) – has also heightened tensions.

“Tomorrow's provocative ‘show trial’ hearing cannot help but cause alarm and deep alienation among American Muslim youth. As such, King himself risks becoming a source of radicalization,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, in a statement.

The Capitol Police are stepping up security for Thursday’s hearings, following threats. In an interview with the Hill newspaper, King said added security was coming from the Nassau County Police Department and the New York City Police Department. “Whatever threat analysis police have done, they believe I warrant security,” he told the Hill. “I don’t ask for it and I certainly don’t turn away any security that police think I should have. I leave it up to them.”

The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, says he supports an investigation into domestic terrorism but objects to narrowing the probe to the nation's Muslim community.

“We’re supportive of the examination of radicalization as a whole,” says his spokeswoman, Dena Graziano. “The dialogue is important, but the way Mr. King is going about it with this narrow Muslim extremism does the nation and the issue a disservice.”

Further hearings will examine the increasing threat of Islamic radicalization; the role that mosques, prisons, and the Internet play in facilitating radicalization; and the role that the community plays in helping to avert terrorist attacks.

“It’s not surprising to me that the list of witnesses is not representative of the [Muslim] community,” says Ahmed Rohab, a spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR). "We’ve seen a cottage industry emerge that is ripe with Islamophobic rhetoric and demonizes the Islamic community, rather than the individuals who commit the acts of terror or extremist rhetoric,” he adds. CAIR is one of the organizations expected to be criticized by witnesses for discouraging Arab-Americans from talking to the FBI.

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