Radicalization in the Muslim community: Why Rep. Peter King's hearings fizzled.

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March 10 2011 7:45 PM

CAIR-Less

Peter King's mega-hyped hearing on radicalization of American Muslims avoided his biggest targets.

Also in Slate, William Saletan describes Rep. Peter King's bait and switch at the hearing.

Peter King. Click image to expand.
Peter King

There was a specter haunting the House Homeland Security Committee's hearing Thursday on "radicalization in the Muslim community." That specter was CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. As the hearings began, with huge lines of spectators and journalists still trying to get in, committee chairman Rep. Peter King said that there really wasn't any way to save Muslims from extremism as long as CAIR got taken seriously.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"Moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim community," said King, who was presiding over the hearing after three months of hype and outrage about its very existence. "This means that responsible Muslim-American leaders must reject discredited groups such as CAIR, which was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorist financing case involving the Holyland Foundation."

King was referring to the scandal and trial that brought down what was, for years, the largest Islamic charity in the United States. In 2009, the Holyland Foundation's founders were handed life sentences in prison for illegally sending money to Hamas. That scandal, arguably, got less coverage than King's battle with CAIR from the day he announced the hearing to the day he finally put it on.

"In the lead-up to this hearing," said King, "I found it shocking and sad that the mainstream media accepted CAIR's accusations"—that King's hearings were a sham—"as if it were a legitimate organization."

The media, hurriedly typing and taping everything in the room, wasn't writing about CAIR today. No one from CAIR was at the hearing. King hadn't invited them.

"I think it might have been helpful if we were invited," said Corey Saylor, CAIR's legislative director, after the hearing. (CAIR put together a potemkin "testimony" anyway.) "So many of the attacks they leveled at us already have responses that have been out there for months."

The attacks got aired at the hearing, but the responses—which CAIR critics have dismissed many, many times already—didn't get aired. That was what King wanted. There wasn't much on display that couldn't be seen on a good night of Fox News programming, albeit with a bigger presence of carping, emotional Democrats.

And that was a surprise. On Tuesday, in one of the many comments King gave to Politico about what would happen in the hearing, he said he wanted skeptics to expect something like "the hearings that Bobby Kennedy had into labor-union corruption in the late 1950s." He was referring to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, which met for four years (Kennedy was chief counsel) and called more than 1,000 witnesses to uncover corruption in unions. Union leaders showed up to defend themselves. They didn't do a great job of it.

Outside the hearing room, the people lining up were worried about a head-butting contest like that. Zak Delwahi, a Johns Hopkins student who wore a pin combining the American and Saudi flags on his jacket, said he wanted to witness "history," but thought the hearing set a terrible precedent and would probably make Muslims more fearful.

"I've seen TheGodfather, Part II," he said. "I know that these hearings are mostly for show, but that they're geared toward starting confrontations."

King's hearing went for another approach, sidestepping the chance to grill "discredited groups" in front of streaming CNN cameras. Instead, as King would say after the hearing, the goal was to break down "a wall of political correctness on an issue that has to be addressed."

If that sounds like an awfully minor task for a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is. And as Adam Serwer pointed out, two relatively controversial thinkers invited to speak at the hearing were ditched because of—well, let's call it "political correctness."

The witnesses who did testify were Abdirizak Bihi and Melvin Bledsoe, whose sons had been radicalized and recruited into terrorism, and M. Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor who has pointed to evidence from the Holy Land Foundation trial to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical interests want to install Sharia law in the United States.

The fathers' testimony was riveting. Bihi said that religious leaders threatened him with "eternal hellfire and damnation" if they tampered with his son's decisions. Bledsoe said that radical Muslims were trying, and in some cases succeeding, to recruit young black men by telling them that they were living hopeless lives and they could do something about it by becoming terrorists. His son's imam, he said, encouraged him to head down that path.

Democrats were largely unimpressed. Rep. Jackie Speier compared the witnesses' level of expertise to the expertise she might have in pedophilia, since she volunteered at her Catholic Church. "While I appreciate the anecdotes of those who have spoken," she said, "I don't think they're particularly enlightening."

Bledsoe, encouraged by sympathetic Republicans, had a response to that. "I'm wondering how they [Democrats] got on the commission to speak about some of the things they speak about," he said. "Most of the people talking on the other side are talking about political fear. That's what I mostly hear here. There is a small population that we're talking about, Islamic extremists, we're worried about stepping on their toes, and they're talking about stamping us out."

In one respect, though, Speier was right. Jasser, who has appeared in two documentaries to lay out the connections between peaceful-sounding Muslim groups and terrorists, didn't go there in front of the committee. Republican attempts to make direct connections between peaceful-sounding Muslim groups and the horror stories of the witnesses hit a wall, largely because Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca (a Democratic witness) kept arguing that it was better to work with groups like CAIR than to call them terrorists.

"Basically, you're dealing with a terrorist organization," said Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican freshman from Minnesota, "and I'm trying to get you to understand that they might be using you, sir, to implement their goals."

"Thank you for asking that question," said Baca, "but it seems more like a possible accusation." The accusation didn't hold up. Remaining Republican questioners were limited to asking what, as members of Congress, they could do to figure all this out.

In a short press conference after the hearings ended, flanked by his witnesses, King pronounced the day a success. The next hearings, he said, might focus on radicalization in prisons. (The Senate's Homeland Security has held hearings on this issue with less fanfare.) In media terms, the hearings were a success, even if Rep. Keith Ellison's teary opening testimony was bound to take over some of the coverage. But if King wants to nail the people behind radicalization, why not bring in CAIR next time?

"The fact is that CAIR was named a terrorist co-conspirator in a terrorism funding case," said King. "I hope the media would realize that, rather just taking CAIR handouts and reporting them as they'd report on the Knights of Columbus."

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