Hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans set to begin today in the House have provoked a volatile national debate that is spilling into the election cycle.
Threatening phone calls made this week to Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, were the latest sign that tensions are high as the New York Republican spearheads a probe into the threat of domestic terrorism.
Battle lines are already being drawn. On one side are Muslim advocacy and civil rights groups that call the investigation a targeted witch hunt and liken it to Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism hearings. On the other are national security and tea party activists who argue that the inquiry is a necessary first step toward protecting Americans.
King told Roll Call that he initiated the probe to highlight what he says is a rising threat of radicalization in Muslim communities. The hearings could stretch out over the next year, prolonging the topic just long enough to make Islam a wedge issue in the presidential primaries.
“We’re starting to see increased anti-Muslim rhetoric and bigotry that seems timed for the political season,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. “The Republican Party is increasingly painting itself as the party of hate and divisiveness.”
As candidates travel around the country testing the waters for presidential runs, the hearings could also revive last year’s polarized debate on a proposed Islamic center, which critics dubbed a mosque, near the site of ground zero in New York City. In the midterm elections, some conservative candidates used that issue to generate cash and attention for their campaigns.
Khera’s nonprofit and 50 other Muslim and interfaith groups sent a letter to Congress last month protesting the hearings and raising concerns about what they see as anti-Muslim comments by King that there are too many mosques in the U.S. and that “80 percent of the mosques were controlled by extremists.” The groups say the contrary is true and point to a Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security study showing Muslims have worked with law enforcement — 48 of 120 known terrorist plots since 9/11 were foiled with tips from the Muslim community.
King said that his goal is not to target Muslims but to engage them on matters of national security and that he resents suggestions that his motivations are political.
“To me there’s nothing political about Sept. 11. There’s nothing political about fighting Islamic terrorism. ... That’s the only charge made against me I resent,” he said. “I’m not concerned about the politics of it. I don’t see how it in any way could divide Republicans.”
But Republican strategist Suhail Khan does. The former Bush administration political appointee started the Conservative Inclusion Coalition to advise the Republican National Committee on the sensitivities of cultural and religious minorities.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.