Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, will hold hearings next month on radicalization within the American Muslim community.
Weeks before he bangs the gavel, King is catching flak from both left and right: Conservatives are irked that most of the people he is calling to testify are Muslim leaders; House liberals would like to see him pursue homegrown terrorism more broadly, without a specific focus on Muslims.
The gruff Long Islander, in an interview with National Review Online, shrugs off his critics. The hearings, he predicts, will be neither toothless nor inflammatory. His aim, he says, is simply to dig into the root causes of radicalization with the help of Muslim leaders — Beltway pooh-poohing and political correctness be damned.
“I strongly believe that there is a concerted effort by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates to recruit young Muslims living legally in this country,” King says. “It is a real threat, and it deserves our attention.”
Keeping the spotlight on the subject at hand will be a challenge, King acknowledges. He knows how easily such a hearing could devolve into a media circus. But by calling on Muslims to speak up, he hopes to spark a dialogue.
Better cooperation, King reasons, will be encouraged if the hearings turn down the volume and clear the air. For now, Walid Phares, a Beirut-born professor, and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona physician and military veteran, are slated to appear. Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), a Muslim, will also participate.
King’s strategy, however, leaves well-known experts on Islamic terrorism outside of the Muslim community — such as Steve Emerson, Robert Spencer, and Daniel Pipes — watching via C-SPAN.
“I don’t want to bring in the same faces,” King explains. “Nine years after September 11, people’s eyes glaze over if they keep seeing the same people. If we have subsequent hearings, and we have more questions, we can bring in others.”
King reckons that by bringing in a slew of Muslim leaders as initial witnesses, he will be able to get them, on record, to more fully explain how Muslims are supporting anti-terror efforts. At the same time, he is looking forward to giving Muslims a platform to voice their concerns about related issues. Looking at radicalization from the Muslim perspective, he says, could yield something constructive, beyond the usual blame game.
“Look, when I meet with Muslim leaders, people who are successful in their community, it is clear that there is no support for al-Qaeda. I don’t sense that at all.” King says. “What I do sense is that they feel like they are under siege.” That fear, he says, is natural, but unfortunate. “If they did speak out, it would make them a much more positive force.”
“It is not enough for them to say that they denounce all terrorism, that they denounce all violence,” King says. “They have to be much more aggressive. I don’t think they fully realize that. They worry that if they came out and highlighted their opposition to Islamic terrorism, it would focus too much attention on the Muslim community, reminding people that these terrorists are Muslims. So they don’t deal with it in an open way.”
While he aims to keep the tone of the hearings civil, King points out that he is willing to wade into areas of discomfort. With domestic attacks on the rise, from the botched Times Square bombing to the Fort Hood shooting, he says the stakes are too high not to delve into the leadership of the Muslim community. Unlike other faiths, he says, Islam has a hierarchy that is quite complex and often misunderstood, with few identifiable national spokesmen. He hopes his hearings will give community leaders a chance to flesh out their concerns and insights — and provide Congress and fellow Americans with a window into their world.
For his part, King will spend most of the hearings pressing for more information about how Muslims respond to law-enforcement officials.
“There has not been enough cooperation from the Muslim community,” King says. “That is what I have learned over the past eight or nine years in dealing with law-enforcement officials at all levels. It has been disappointing. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good people, but the leadership in their communities has not cooperated enough, nor have they set a tone for cooperation. I want to see that change.”
In numerous cases, King has seen a lack of “full throated, intense” denunciation of terroristic activities, he says. The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ use of “Don’t Talk to the FBI” posters is but one example. King plans to cite many such instances at his hearings, looking for answers.
Despite his careful prep, things could get hot. But King bristles when opponents call his hearings “McCarthyite” witch hunts. “If there are people in the United States who are organizing against the government, it does fall within our congressional responsibility,” he argues. “A number of people have said that this is for the FBI, not for Congress. Well, in that case, Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy never would have investigated the Teamsters. Congress does have an investigative role to play.”
While King does not expect any grand, “Kumbaya” policy document to emerge after the hearings, he is hoping that the discussions will stir law-enforcement leaders to be “less politically correct” in their dealings with the Muslim community. The standoff nature of investigations and even minor dealings, he says, has put all sides at risk.
“The lack of cooperation is something I have adjusted to over the years,” King chuckles. “Over the years, in private conversations, law-enforcement officials almost casually admit that they do not get cooperation from Muslim leaders, that they don’t expect any. Then, in public, they say no one cooperates more than the Muslim community. You have this disconnect between what they tell me privately and what they feel they can say publicly, for political reasons.”
Brushing away the cobwebs of post-9/11 trepidation is crucial, King says. It will also be a delicate endeavor: Democrats will be watching for any misstep. And any gaffe or whiff of anti-Muslim rhetoric could be devastating.
House Speaker John Boehner, King notes, is not blocking his efforts. But the New Yorker knows that he must tread with caution.
“Nobody from the leadership has said anything, so I’m just going ahead,” King says. “I have not gotten any opposition from them at all. I’ll be managing the hearing, so the responsibility is mine, to make sure there is no kind of religious bias or hostility toward Muslims. We are not going to be getting into interpretations of the Koran. Decorum will be important. I do not want anything said at my hearing that could justify someone throwing a brick at a mosque.”
King, a high-spirited and argumentative attorney, admits that he, too, will have to simmer down. “I can’t allow myself to say anything that would be misinterpreted,” he says. “I can’t be feeling sorry for myself if I give the mainstream media a sword to use against me; I can’t say something dopey, inane, or not based in fact, or lose my temper. We are going to keep this sensible. As long as this is done in a professional way, I know that I will have John Boehner’s support.”
“I’m not Dr. Phil,” King sighs. “In one or two hearings, I will not able to unravel all of the problems in the Islamic community. But I may be able to bring some good leaders from within that community forward.” And that, he tells me, would be an achievement.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.