x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Muslim Americans fear Congress terrorism hearings fuel Islamophobia

Community figures warn upcoming hearings dealing with domestic terrorism help people 'feel comfortable' discriminating against Islam.

A man uses an American flag to shelter himself from the rain during the 'Today, I Am A Muslim, Too' rally in New York City on Sunday, held to protest at the targeting of American Muslims and Arabs.
A man uses an American flag to shelter himself from the rain during the 'Today, I Am A Muslim, Too' rally in New York City on Sunday, held to protest at the targeting of American Muslims and Arabs.

WASHINGTON // The Muslim Journal is freely available at the Masjid Muhammad. Several copies occupy a shelf outside the administrative offices of the Shaw-area mosque, which has served African-American Muslims in this regenerating Washington neighbourhood for 75 years.

The front page of this week's edition of the Journal splashes with an article on Egypt's new leaders. The story of the year thus far, however, has to compete for space with something a little closer to home, an article outlining American Muslim concerns over congressional hearings into domestic Muslim terrorism.

Those hearings start tomorrow, but have already stirred controversy. Twenty-eight members of the House of Representatives signed a letter on Monday calling for their cancellation. The scope of the hearings, the representatives wrote, "unfairly stigmatises and alienates Muslim Americans" and ignores other forms of violent domestic extremism.

Representatives of American Muslim organisations go further. The hearings are "frankly un-American", said Corey Saylor, the national legislative director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). They are "helping to create an environment where people feel comfortable discriminating against Muslims", he said.

Talib Shareef, the imam of the Masjid Muhammad, is also concerned. He served for 30 years in the US air force, heandrose in the ranks to become Chief Master Sergeant, the highest non-commissioned rank possible, before retiring in 2009. In the air force, he said, he prayed openly and found "an opportunity to share" understanding of his religion.

To single out Islam in the way the congressional hearings do, he said, feeds into an "Islamophobic atmosphere" that has become more widespread since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"Americans understand Christianity. So they understand what a Christian extremist is. But people don't know much about Islam. So they confuse Muslims and extremists," he said.

Such concerns have done little to move Peter King, the Republican representative from New York who called the hearings in his role as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives.

Speaking on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, Mr King rejected criticism that he was scapegoating a religious community and ignoring threats from other extremists.

The US attorney general Eric Holder, Mr King said, was not "staying awake at night because of what's coming from anti-abortion demonstrators or coming from environmental extremists or from Neo-Nazis. It's the radicalisation right now in the Muslim community."

Six witnesses will give evidence during the hearings, including the relatives of two Muslim Americans who became involved in violent extremism, the Los Angeles county sheriff and two Congressmen, among them Keith Ellison, a Muslim American Democrat from Minnesota.

A poll last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 56 per cent of Americans supported congressional investigations into extremism in America.

But the same poll also found that a much larger majority, 72 per cent, thought Congress should not single out Muslims, and Mr Saylor suggested Mr King was being derelict in his duty by doing so.

"We have to be concerned about violent extremism in the US in general. You have an individual who took an aeroplane and flew it into a building in Texas, targeting the IRS. You have a man who walked up to the Holocaust museum and started shooting rounds off. These are all things that we need to look into the genesis of."

Mr Saylor also said CAIR was concerned about the hearings, "given Congressman King's history of anti-Muslim remarks". In 2007 Mr King proclaimed that there were "too many mosques" in the US. In 2004, he claimed that "80 to 85 per cent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists".

Mr King further contends that Muslim community leaders have been reluctant to work with US law-enforcement agencies to unravel potential terrorist plots, one of the stated reasons he called the congressional hearings.

This was a charge he repeated on Fox television network in March, saying that, "somehow a wall of silence has developed". The radicalisation of American Muslims was "a real threat. It's a growing threat, and it's not just me saying this", he said.

But a February study by the Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a joint department of Duke University and the University of North Carolina, found that the number of Muslim-Americans engaged in terrorist plots with domestic targets had actually declined from 18 in 2009 to 10 in 2010.

The study also revealed that tips from the Muslim-American community had provided information that led to a plot being thwarted in 48 of 120 cases involving Muslim-Americans.

In all, the study found there had been 11 terrorist attacks on US soil, killing 33 people, perpetrated by Muslim-Americans since September 11, 2001. By way of contrast, the study pointed out there had been about 150,000 murders in America during the same period.

On Sunday, the US administration felt compelled to weigh in to defuse the growing controversy, dispatching Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to the president, Barack Obama, to address the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia. With respect to domestic terrorism, Mr McDonough told his audience, "Muslim Americans are not part of the problem. You're part of the solution".

The White House denied that the timing of Mr McDonough's speech had anything to do with Thursday's hearings. That did not convince the Washington Times, which, in an editorial on Monday supporting the congressional hearings, labelled the speech a kind of "appeasing propaganda" often used by the "Obama administration and other pro-Islamic activists".

For his part, Imam Shareef was considering on Monday whether to call a press conference to make his own contribution to the debate. A "negative stigma" had attached itself to Islam, he said, and Americans were largely unaware of the role Muslims have historically played in American society.

The hearings, he hoped, may at least provide "an opportunity to educate people about Islam".

okarmi@thenational.ae