King announced his plan to hold hearings about the domestic Islamic threat in December. Since then, dozens of religious, human-rights, and civil-liberties groups, and several of King’s colleagues from across the aisle, have loudly denounced the idea. Demonstrators have protested and held vigils outside his office. A “Today I Am a Muslim, Too” rally has been planned for March 6 in Times Square. The Republican leadership, focused on the economy and wary of the criticism the hearings stand to generate, hasn’t exactly backed King either. Asked last month about the opposition to the hearings, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said flatly, “Representative King is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.”
King says he simply wants to start “a debate about the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community and how real that is.” He also wants “to have people within the community realize their current leadership is not serving them well.” To back his claim that the threat of homegrown terrorism is rising, he cites a Congressional Research Service report showing that authorities have made arrests in 22 alleged homegrown jihad-related terrorism plots since May 2009 (they made only 21 such arrests in the eight years before then), and references high-profile cases of homegrown terror attempts by radicalized Muslims, like the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. He says he is alarmed by a 2007 Pew survey suggesting that 15 percent of Muslim Americans between 18 and 29 think suicide bombing can sometimes or often be justified. He also says law-enforcement officials have told him that “there are any number of mosques that are under surveillance, and police feel they are not getting the straight story from the people in those mosques.”
“If I had made this about the Christian right or militia movements, I doubt there would have been this reaction.”
But King tends to overlook data that undermines his arguments—like a recent report from Duke and the University of North Carolina that found that it was fellow Muslims who turned in 48 of the 120 Muslims suspected of plotting domestic terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001. He refuses to name the sources who claim Muslims are uncooperative (he says they’re always off the record with him). And the list of witnesses he plans to call is a subject of controversy as well. He hasn’t asked any experts on the threat of domestic terror to testify about the true extent of the threat (one witness invited by Democrats on the committee, Sheriff Leroy Baca of Los Angeles County, recently said he hadn’t heard any complaints about Muslim noncooperation).
King has settled on inviting only everyday Muslims—“people from inside the community”—to testify. The hearing format allows him three witnesses. One of his choices is M. Zuhdi Jasser, a conservative Arizona physician and military veteran who has repeatedly spoken out about Muslim separatist culture leading to a lack of cooperation with U.S. law-enforcement officials. “King is taking a lot of heat because he’s saying this is a Muslim problem,” Jasser says, “but what people are ignoring is how he’s saying Muslims are also the solution.” The other two witnesses are Abdirizak Bihi and Melvin Bledsoe, both family members of Muslim Americans who are allegedly linked to homegrown terror attempts. “They’re relatives of people who were radicalized,” King says. “They will discuss how they were radicalized, and the lack of cooperation after they went to the local leaders, the imams.”
King also aims to discredit advocacy groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that claim to speak on behalf of mainstream American Muslims. King believes that CAIR, which encourages Muslims not to speak to the FBI without a lawyer present, is promoting an atmosphere of noncooperation. “Why the Muslim community considers CAIR to be a spokesperson when they were named an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas-funding case, I don’t understand,” King says.
King’s critics say that even if the hearings raise important questions, King is the wrong person to be asking them. He is, they say, demonstrably anti-Muslim. In 2004, King repeated the assertion that extremism has spread to 80 percent of the American Muslim population—an unsubstantiated statistic that derives from a 1999 statement by a Sufi leader named Hisham Kabbani, who has been widely condemned for making the remark and hasn’t publicly elaborated on it since. In 2007, King told a reporter that America had “too many mosques”—a quote he later clarified by saying “too many mosques in this country do not cooperate with law enforcement.”
Mostly, the fear is that the atmospherics of the hearing will stifle their public benefit. America is a tinderbox of prejudice and fear. King’s detractors say those are entirely the emotions he aims to exploit—that the purpose of these hearings isn’t exactly sincere. “King’s intent seems clear: to cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia,” says California Democratic congressman Michael Honda.