WASHINGTON — Extraordinary public scrutiny will focus Thursday not only on the topic of a widely publicized House of Representatives committee hearing — the radicalization of American Muslims — but also on the man who'll wield the gavel.
Some elected officials, civil liberties groups and American Muslim organizations fear that Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, will preside over an inflammatory inquiry akin to former Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous 1950s "witch hunt" investigations into communist anti-American activities.
Others, however, including top officials of the Obama administration, say there's a real threat to U.S. security from domestic terrorists, in particular from Muslims attracted to jihad, and that investigating that threat is a legitimate task for Congress.
What happens in King's hearing, the first in a series, and its impact on the American people will depend largely upon how King — a blunt, media-savvy, 10-term conservative Republican — handles it.
"It's a very touchy subject because of the legacy of 9-11 and because of efforts of President Bush and President Obama to play down the antagonism or suspicions of many Americans towards Muslims," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor. "How this plays out, of course, hinges upon how Mr. King conducts the hearings. Bottom line, this has the potential to exacerbate those feelings rather than relieve them."
King's critics don't view him as an honest broker. They point to some of his assertions after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such as when he said that Islamic fundamentalists controlled 85 percent of the mosques in America.
They also question his commitment to combating terrorism, citing his fervent support in the 1980s and 1990s for the Irish Republican Army, whose military wing engaged in terrorist bombings against the British.
"He has shown a remarkable lack of sophistication and nuance on this issue," said Tom Parker, a counterterrorism expert for Amnesty International and a former British intelligence officer. "That's clearly the approach he's taking at the Muslim community; he's tarring people with a broad brush."
King's response to his critics: So what? The hearing isn't about him. It's about "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and the Community's Response," he said, citing the title of his inquiry.
"If this was World War II, if Germany was trying to recruit German-Americans, it would make no sense to investigate African-Americans," King said in an interview with McClatchy, regarding the complaints that he's unfairly targeting the Muslim community.
"This is political correctness," King said. "I'm surprised and disappointed at the mainstream media for getting so hysterical. This is a major threat to the United States — the attempted radicalization of Muslim Americans — and we can't ignore that threat."
In that conviction King isn't alone; the Obama administration apparently thinks so, too. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair warned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year that the allure of al Qaida for "some disaffected young Muslims ... includes, unfortunately, Americans."
"Although we don't have the high-level homegrown threat that faces European countries right now, we have to worry about the appeal of that figures like Anwar al Awlaki exert on young American Muslims," Blair testified, speaking of the U.S.-born cleric who's advocated violence against the United States and who'd been in contact with Fort Hood shooting suspect Nidal Hasan and "underwear" bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
In a 2009 speech in New York, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the U.S. was seeing a spike in arrests of individuals who were suspected of plotting terrorist attacks or supporting overseas groups such as al Qaida.
"Home-based terrorism is here," she said. "And, like violent extremism abroad, it will be part of the threat picture that we must now confront."
Even Attorney General Eric Holder conceded last year that homegrown terrorism "is one of the things that keeps me up at night."
However, the administration is struggling, just as former President George W. Bush's White House did, to balance security concerns with sensitivity to avoid being viewed as hostile to Muslim Americans and one of the world's largest religions.
White House officials have said they welcome King's hearing, but they took pains Sunday to deliver a message of tolerance. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said that "Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, you're part of the solution" in a speech to a Muslim group just outside the nation's capital.
One key premise of King's inquiry is that American Muslims aren't cooperating enough with federal and local law enforcement to help root out radicalized individuals. But Muslim American groups, administration officials and some terrorism experts say that Muslim Americans have played active roles in thwarting potential attacks.
Overall, from December 2008 to December 2010, 126 people — 50 of them American citizens — were indicted on terror-related charges in the U.S., Holder said last year.
A study released last month by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a research center in North Carolina, found that the number of Muslim Americans who were involved in or arrested for terrorist acts declined from 18 in 2009 to 10 last year. The study also credited tips from the Muslim American community for thwarting 48 of 120 terrorism cases alleged to involve Muslim Americans over the last 10 years.
King, on CBS's "Early Show" Wednesday, called the study "skewed." The report's author, Charles Kurzman, said he stood by his work.
Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, worries that King's hearing could end up doing more harm than good in fostering better relations between Muslim Americans and law enforcers.
"There already is a strong dialogue and connection with the law enforcement communities," Ayoub said. "We don't know what his motives are and what he's trying to accomplish. It seems pretty political."
King's supporters disagree. They see the hearings as an obligation of Congress.
"This hearing isn't about profiling; it's about protecting our homeland," said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. "The hearing represents a sound strategy to address what most Americans understand: that there is a very real and growing threat to our national security and way of life."
A new poll by the Pew Research Center illustrates the divide. The survey found that 58 percent of people 30 and younger think that Islam doesn't encourage violence more than other religions do. However, a 45 percent plurality of people 50 and older said that Islam was more likely to encourage violence.
By political party, conservative Republicans said Islam encouraged more violence than other faiths did by 66 percent to 21 percent. Among moderate and liberal Republicans, 46 percent thought that Islam encouraged more violence, and 47 percent said it didn't.
Conversely, liberal Democrats said by 61 percent to 29 percent that Islam wasn't more likely to promote violence than other religions were. Conservative and moderate Democrats agreed to a smaller degree, 48 percent to 31 percent.
As for King's commitment to combating terrorism, he makes no apologies for supporting the IRA. He said his contacts with the organization's political wing and its leader, Gerry Adams, made him a valuable go-between that helped broker the Good Friday peace accords in Northern Ireland. Former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have verified that claim publicly.
King says his critics are comparing apples to oranges when they lump radical Muslim Americans together with IRA terrorists.
"The IRA never attacked the United States," he said.
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