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Khan said he worries candidates testing the waters for presidential runs will use the debate as “a partisan or political device to generate animosity of Muslims Americans and, worse, to raise money for particular candidates who are trying to place themselves on either side of the issue.”
During the midterms, Khan joined leaders of conservative groups in criticizing members of his own party who tried to use the mosque debate to attack opponents. He pointed to some who did and lost, including New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and Tennessee Congressional hopeful Lou Ann Zelenik, as proof that the strategy does not work.
“The risk is that when the electorate is focused on real bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs, economy and taxes, that by bringing up these kinds of issues, not only are they wasting time, they might even lose votes,” Khan said. “These issues are like shiny objects to raccoons. They’re just distractions.”
At least one portion of the electorate may be keen to take on the issue. Conservative activists with the hard-liner group ACT! for America and some tea partyers rallied behind King and organized events to counter the opposition. While leading tea party groups have not yet taken a position, Tea Party Patriots Orange County Coordinator Marc Harris said activists in California are watching closely.
“We’re all talking about it. It hasn’t become an official tea party issue, but all the members of the tea parties are concerned about it and have an opinion about it,” he said. “It probably will become something that we will add to our national dialogue.”
A recent protest organized by conservatives in his county highlighted the rising tensions. As supporters of the Islamic Circle of North America entered a fundraiser there, protesters gathered outside with American flags and shouted, “You’re not welcome here. Go home,” and “Take the sharia and go home, you terrorist lovers.”
Video footage has since circulated online and prompted counterprotests. Muslim Advocates’ Khera said she is concerned the hearings could stoke such hostilities. Her group launched a website, WhatUnites.Us, to log anti-Muslim rhetoric as the hearings get under way.
But Karen Lugo, who helped organize the California protest and condemned the heckling, said Congressional action could help soothe her community’s concerns.
“I am confident that when people understand that the government is beginning to address this question, the sense of security and trust that government is looking to this, I think that will calm this situation,” she said.
Witnesses for the first hearing suggest the hearings may not be as one-sided as opponents portray. King has invited Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim and vocal critic of King’s plans, to testify.
“Most Muslims, especially after they see the hearings, will see how fair they are,” King said. Also testifying today are the relatives of two accused terrorists, along with Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca, Muslim conservative Zuhdi Jasser and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).
Among Congressional leaders, sentiments on the hearings seem to run along party lines. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he is “deeply concerned” about the hearings, as did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) defended them.