American Muslim leaders, who have struggled to present a clear public voice or organize politically in the decade since Sept. 11, are increasingly apprehensive about the direction Rep. Pete King will take when he convenes hearings next month on the threat posed by radical Islam in America.
King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, plans to focus on the Times Square bombing attempt and the Fort Hood shooting, both involving American-born Muslims, as well as other incidents and on what he sees as the failure of Muslim leadership to combat extremism.
King has been critical of the Obama administration for failing to take the threat of domestic terrorism seriously and has been sparring with Muslim leaders since soon after Sept. 11 for not taking their own steps to combat it.
“The leadership of the community is not geared to cooperation,” King told POLITICO.
His upcoming hearings have caused deep concern and consternation among various Arab and Muslim advocacy groups across the country that fear King’s witness list will help define, for the purposes of the American public conversation, which Muslim leaders are legitimate and which should be regarded as extremists.
“You can definitely say overall the hearings are seen with great apprehension, suspicion and distaste — sometimes sorrow,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an expert on Islam and Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles. “These hearings have a history of stigmatizing whole groups of people.”
King insists that the goal of his hearings is not to stigmatize Muslims but to confront the threat of homegrown terrorism and to explore the role of Muslim leaders in dealing with it.
“This isn’t a question of scoring points,” said King. “It’s the fact that there’s a real threat coming from this attempted radicalization of the community and it’s, in many ways, coming from overseas.”
In a move that will come as a relief to Muslim leaders, King told POLITICO that he’s not planning to call as witnesses such Muslim community critics as the Investigative Project on Terrorism’s Steve Emerson and Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer, who have large followings among conservatives but are viewed as antagonists by many Muslims.
King aims, he said, to call retired law enforcement officials and people with “the real life experience of coming from the Muslim community.” Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in the House and a critic of the hearings, will likely be a minority witness, according to both King and the Minnesota Democrat.
The focus, King said, will be on — among other topics — reported complaints from Somali Muslims that the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups discouraged them from talking to the authorities about young men who left to fight for the Islamist cause in Somalia and on cases like that of the imam who — while ostensibly cooperating with the FBI — allegedly tipped off a would-be subway bomber off as investigators closed in.
Muslim leaders respond that American Muslims have been key to an array of terror investigations, beginning with the Muslim street vendor who first noticed the smoking car in Times Square.
“I hope my colleague from New York .... does not make the mistake of trying to paint all Muslims with a broad, extremist brush,” Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the other Muslim in Congress, said in an e-mail to POLITICO. “Because for one, that’s not an accurate depiction of the millions of peace-loving Muslims, and two, our national security depends on us forging strong partnerships with people across the Muslim world.”
Possible witnesses, according to King, include Dutch critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali and M. Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser is a sharp critic of leading American Muslim groups, whose agenda he calls “Islamist.”
“We have to admit as Muslims that we need a 12-step program,” Jasser told POLITICO. “The first step is acceptance.”
“If they don’t see us leading a charge for reform, they’re going to see us as part of the problem,” he said.
Jasser is a rare Muslim voice welcoming the hearings. Other community leaders who spoke to POLITICO are afraid that their fragmented community is not ready for this fight.
“This could be a very damaging hearing. It really could be something that spreads a lot of vitriol and poison, and I’m worried about it, and I don’t understand why the community has decided to allow itself to be so unorganized,” said Hussein Ibish, former communications director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who is now a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
“Nearly all Muslim organizations need ... new political leadership, simply because most of the leadership continues to be from the immigrant community. English continues to be not their first language, and their primary education was obtained elsewhere, before they came to the United States,” said Fadl. “Eventually, they’ll learn.”
One group that is ready to debate the likes of King and Jasser on cable — CAIR — has not been invited to testify.
“If I saw the hearings were sober and objective, I’d have no concerns,” said Corey Saylor, CAIR’s legislative director. “But King is opting for a political circus approach.”
The group, which has roots in the Hamas-allied Islamic Association for Palestine in the 1980s, was named as an unindicted cohort in the federal prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development for allegedly conspiring to aid Hamas.
And though it fiercely denies any affinity to radicalism — and while the latter designation was formally lifted last year — those two facts have put it largely beyond the political pale.
“No one in Washington will deal with CAIR except the [American Civil Liberties Union] — which deals with everyone,” lamented a prominent official at one putatively allied group, adding that the group’s past makes it “radioactive.”
Saylor dismissed the alleged Hamas link as a “smear,” as well as the claim that community leaders don’t encourage cooperation with the authorities.
“We consistently advise constitutionally informed cooperation with law enforcement. That is pretty standard for a civil rights group,” he said in an e-mail.
But between CAIR on one end and Jasser and Hirsi Ali on the other is a wide abyss in terms of organized political activity — despite the efforts of half of a dozen small groups.
Organizations like the Islamic Society of North America represent, in theory, hundreds of thousands of American Muslims. But many of those Muslims have little interest in political activity and little ability to project themselves on the political stage. Officials of the society declined to comment on the King hearings.
And the community remains defined as much by sectarian, ethnic and political divisions between groups as by what they have in common.
The community’s most prominent figure at the moment, Ground Zero mosque planner Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the representative of the minority Sufi sect whose ties to interfaith leaders are stronger than those to his fellow Muslims.
The disorganization is, at the moment, the subject of broad hand-wringing across the Muslim political leadership.
“There’s a lot of flailing around,” said Suhail Khan, former Bush administration official and senior fellow for Christian-Muslim Understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement, describing the Muslim community’s response to the Ground Zero mosque and other recent controversies, like a Florida pastor’s vow to burn a Quran.
Some blame critics of Islam for stigmatizing the community. “You’re dealing with an emerging community that’s still trying to find its political voice,” said Ellison. “There’s not that many new American communities [that] have an organized opposition out to thwart them.”
Others blame CAIR.
“They’ve looked like they’re not as strongly behind counter-terrorism polices that needed to happen,” said Mohamed Elibiary, Department of Homeland Security consultant and Dallas-based community activist.
“That makes them a very easy target,” said Elibiary. “We ought to have some kind of national representative body that then can represent us collectively, as opposed to today.”
“We haven’t matured,” said Elibiary. “The Jewish community didn’t get there until the 50s.”
There has been talk, two officials of Muslim organizations said, of setting up a politically palatable rival to CAIR, though that plan hasn’t been fully realized.
In the meantime, the response will likely be led by a group that many on Capitol Hill choose to ignore — the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
“If we think that it’s political theater, we’re also willing to address this in a very public way. We’ve got a list ready of various law enforcement agents from the local to the federal level who have talked about the work that Muslim Americans have done,” said Haris Tarin, director of the group’s Washington office.
King, for his part, insists the goal of the hearings, which are scheduled for late February, is not to paint an an entire community with a broad brush. “The overwhelming majority of Muslims,” he said, “are outstanding Americans.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the case in which a New York imam alerted a terror suspect to a federal investigation. Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali tipped off the attempted suicide subway bomb plotter Najibullah Zazi, not the attempted Times Square bomber.