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Though last week featured a contentious public debate about the role of Muslims in American society, some advocates for that community believe their critics are creating an opportunity for Muslims to expand their political clout.
On Monday, as a leading Republican lawmaker prepared to hold a second round of hearings on radicalization in the American-Muslim community, two Republican presidential candidates at a presidential debate professed discomfort with the idea of hiring Muslims for government posts.
"Those anti-Muslim comments received the loudest applause line during the debate," said Farhana Khera, president of a group called Muslim Advocates.
But by Friday, Khera said, she had witnessed an outpouring of support from Netroots Nation, a premier liberal conference on political activism, giving her hope that the anti-Muslim rhetoric might actually boost the community's clout. The Netroots conference included a panel titled "The Politics of Hate and the Rise of Anti-Muslim Bigotry"; attendees discussed "a spike in hateful and harassing behavior towards Muslims."
As Khera addressed the Netroots audience, a group of Muslim women protested the RightOnline conservative conference a few blocks away. They said a man with a video camera had followed them the night before, asking them why they had their heads covered in America. The event was well-covered on liberal blogs.
Some in Congress are also rising to defend Muslims.
Last month, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a resolution calling on the federal government to counter anti-Muslim sentiment. The measure has 28 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) is holding a series of hearings on radicalization of American Muslims; in response, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in March led what he called the first-ever hearings on the civil rights of American Muslims.
Additionally, a leading interfaith advocacy group came to the Muslim community's side after the Republican presidential debate to rebuke candidates Herman Cain and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). When asked during the debate to clarify an earlier comment that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his administration, Cain said, "I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us."
Gingrich followed up with his own concerns.
"I just want to go out on a limb here. I am in favor of saying to people, 'If you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.' We did this in dealing with the Nazis," he said.
C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, which has 185,000 members representing 75 faiths, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama and the Republican candidates present at the debate criticizing those remarks.
"If the most recent debate is any indication, this kind of rhetoric is not going away," Gaddy wrote. "But I urge you to do your part to shift the debate and defend, rather than attack the American Muslim community."
Gaddy said in an interview that he and other faith leaders are concerned Islam could become a wedge issue in the presidential campaign.
"People who understand the role of religion in American politics can't help but be concerned about this," he said.
Support from groups such as Interfaith Alliance is especially important for American Muslims because their community is so small. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans are Muslim.