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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

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March 31, 2011

Senate hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims
virtually ignored by media

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

On March 29, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin held the first-ever Congressional hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims by saying a "backlash" which began after the attacks of September 11, 2001, continues against "innocent Muslims, Arabs, south Asians and Sikhs." American Muslims are entitled to the same constitutional protections as other Americans, Durbin said, adding that this is an issue of "not just free exercise of religion but freedom of speech."

The hearing, largely ignored by the media, came just a few weeks after a controversial high-profile hearing held by Representative Peter King chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, on the so-called Muslim radicalization. The New York Republican has accused the Muslim community of refusing to cooperate with law enforcement and charged that preaching in some U.S. mosques was leading to radicalization.

Senator Durbin said that the goal of his hearings was to show that most Muslim Americans “are patriotic, law abiding people who simply want to live their life as we do.”

“Many of our nation’s founders fled religious persecution, which is why our Constitution puts great importance on religious freedom,” Durbin said adding: “Today, addressing anti-Muslim discrimination is an important civil rights issue of our time. It is important for our generation to renew our founding charter’s commitment to religious diversity and to protect the liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights.”

Senator Durbin went on to say: “We should all agree that it is wrong to blame an entire community for the wrongdoing of a few. Guilt by association is not the American way. And American Muslims are entitled to the same constitutional protections as every other American.”

Durbin highlighted a number of cases of harsh language directed against Muslims. Without naming Rep. Peter King, he said a leading member of Congress bluntly said “There are too many mosques in this country.” Alluding to Newt Gingrich, Durbin said a former House Speaker falsely claimed, “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Without naming Rev. Franklin Graham, Durbin said a prominent religious leader said Islam is, “wicked” and “evil,” and the publisher of a prominent magazine (apparently The New Republic) who said, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.”

“Such inflammatory speech from prominent public figures creates a fertile climate for discrimination,” he said adding: “So it’s not surprising that the Anti-Defamation League says we face “an intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry.” Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, designated five anti-Muslim hate groups for the first time.”

Durbin said “we have seen anti-Muslim hate crimes, employment discrimination, bullying in schools, restrictions on mosque construction, and Quran burnings.” Sadly, this is a nationwide phenomenon, including my home state of Illinois, he said and gave one example of hate crime: A man was sentenced to 15 months in prison for blowing up the van of a Palestinian-American family that was parked in front of the family’s home in Burbank Illinois.

“We must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won’t tolerate religious discrimination in our communities,” Durbin concluded.

Partisan sparring

According to the Washington Post, the hearing featured the same partisan sparring and many of the same arguments as Rep. Peter King’s hearing on Muslim radicals just three weeks ago.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said that "there are efforts to recruit radical Muslims that must be dealt with." Graham added, "To the American Muslim community I stand with you. But you're going to have to help your country. I'm asking you to get in this fight."

Graham criticized as “overreaching” some of the cases involving Muslims, including the recent case of a small town math teacher who was fired for taking three weeks to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. “The fact that you took this case up will do more harm than good,” Graham told Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, who was one of the four witnesses at the hearing. Graham was alluding to a civil rights suit filed by the Department of Justice recently on behalf of a Muslim math teacher who was denied a request to take three weeks off for pilgrimage.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, said that he was “a bit perplexed by the focus of today’s hearing.”  “If we’re concerned about the most egregious hate crimes,” he said, crimes against Jews and Christians far outnumber those against American Muslims.” Kyl also defended Rep. King’s anti-Muslim hearings, stating, “Political correctness cannot stand in the way of identifying those who would do us harm.”

Testifying on March 29 were four witnesses: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington; the executive director of Muslim Advocates and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that dealt with civil rights and religious profiling, Farhana Khera; Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez; and law school dean Alex Acosta, former assistant attorney general for civil rights under George W. Bush.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

In his testimony, McCarrick, an internationally-known voice on peace and justice issues, drew a parallel between the experiences of Catholics and those of American Muslims. “Catholics have been explicit targets of the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing Party,” McCarrick said. “The very idea of a Catholic in the White House was questioned. Because of this history, we cannot help but be sensitive to the experiences of other religious groups who suffer prejudice, bias and discrimination.”

Cardinal McCarrick said today, we note with particular sadness that Muslim Americans, with whom we have had a positive ongoing dialogue for over two decades, have had their loyalty and beliefs questioned publicly in sweeping and uninformed ways. “This causes us great concern and compels us to reach out in solidarity in support of their dignity and rights as Americans and believers.”

We take notice of the rhetoric and see the actions which target our Muslim neighbors and friends, he said adding: “From the sometimes imbalanced criticism and hurtful words leveled at the Muslim community over the planned building of the Park 51 mosque in New York, to the public burning of the Koran by a Christian minister, to the defacing of a mosque in Oregon following the interruption of a planned terrorist attack, Muslim Americans are increasingly facing unjust acts of discrimination and prejudice.”

Like our own historical experience, their very loyalty as Americans and their traditions and values are being questioned, Cardinal McCarrick emphasized.

Former assistant attorney general for civil rights under George W. Bush and dean of the college of law

Florida International University, Alex Acosta, in his testimony pointed out that  as we approach the 10th Anniversary of 9-11, I feel obligated to state the obvious. “As a nation, we have not forgotten the events of ten years ago. Emotions remain charged, and the desire to blame remains high. Now is good time to remember that no community has a monopoly on any particular type of crime. Now is good time to temper resolve with wisdom and to uphold our principles.”

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing: "We continue to see a steady stream of violence against Muslims... The good news is that with each wave of intolerance, our nation has responded by passing news laws."

He said regrettably, Arab-American, Muslim American, Sikh-American and South Asian American individuals have become targets for those who wrongfully wish to fix blame on members of these groups for the despicable acts of terrorists.

Perez said since 9-11, the Department of Justice has investigated more than 800 incidents involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against persons perceived to be Muslim or to be of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian origin. “The perpetrators of these incidents have employed diverse means, and the incidents have taken many different forms: over the telephone, internet, mail, and face-to-face; from minor assaults to assaults with dangerous weapons and assaults resulting in serious injury and death; through vandalism, shootings, arsons, and bombings directed at homes, businesses, and places of worship.”

Federal charges have been brought in 37 cases against 50 defendants, with 45 convictions to date he said adding: Last spring, the final sentencing occurred in the prosecution of three men who, in February 2008, spray-painted swastikas onto the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee, and then burned the mosque to the ground. All three men pleaded guilty, with two of them receiving sentences of more than 14 years in prison.

He said during his travels around the country, he heard from concerned Muslim and Sikh parents that their children are targets of bullying and harassment. “One parent in central Tennessee sent me a message saying that his child identified 20 students who were calling him names, such as “terrorist,” because of his faith and ethnicity. In this instance, the bullying stopped once the parent contacted the principal. But heartbreaking stories like this happen to kids around the country every day.”

Perez went pointed out that a century ago, being Catholic, my own faith, gave rise to attack in much the same way that being Muslim does today. Many said at the time that you could not be a good American and a good Catholic. “One example was the 1923 passage of a law in Oregon prohibiting teachers from wearing religious garb. It was aimed at keeping nuns out of public schools. Over time, this law came to bar teachers of other faiths, including Muslims and Sikhs wearing religious head coverings, from working as teachers in Oregon. The law was reaffirmed in 2009, when it was preserved as an exception to a new religious freedom law. The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation of the law and its application in the fall of 2009 under Title VII. After the Oregon legislature passed and the governor signed a repeal of the law in early 2010, the Division closed its investigation.”

Farhana Khera

Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, in a 20-page testimony described the anti-Muslim climate and provide examples of American Muslims and institutions that have been unfairly targeted.

She said that in the last several months, anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a disturbing new level as “prominent religious, military and even political leaders have joined the fray, feeding fear and hysteria, with some going so far as to say Islam is a cult, not a religion.”

“There has been a disturbing, growing trend of anti-Muslim rhetoric, including irresponsible and dangerous statements by government officials, and a rampant increase in anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination, opposition to mosques, and hate crimes targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans,” Khera said adding: This increased anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate comes on the heels of increased suspicion by law enforcement since September 11, 2001, where laws and policies have unfairly targeted these communities for increased questioning, searches, seizures, surveillance and other intelligence gathering and law enforcement activities.

She went on to say:

    Recent studies show that anti-Muslim sentiment is increasing amongst the American public. A survey on American values recently conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 45 percent of Americans believe that the values of Islam are at odds with the American way of life. An analysis of public opinion polls from 2003 to 2010 found that since 2005, the percentage of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who held favorable views of Islam has declined rapidly. By 2010, 41 percent of Democrats and only 28 percent of Independents and 21 percent of Republicans held favorable views of Islam, compared to 50 percent Democrats, 41 percent of Independents and 34 percent Republicans in 2005.8 Another study reports that a majority of Americans (53%) say their opinion of Islam is either “not too favorable” (22%) or “not favorable at all” (31%).9 More than 4 in 10 Americans (43%) admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims, which is more than twice the number who say the same about Christians, Jews, and Buddhists.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that there has been a dramatic resurgence of hate groups in the U.S. For the first time ever, SPLC has designated Pam Geller’s recently formed “Stop Islamization of America (“SIOA”) as an active anti- Muslim hate group.” It has also designated at least four other groups as anti-Muslim hate groups: Right Wing Extreme in Georgia; Christian Phalange in North Carolina; 9/11 Christian Center at Ground Zero in New York; and Casa D’Ice Signs in Pennsylvania. It describes anti-Muslim hate groups as typically holding “conspiratorial views regarding the inherent danger to America posed by its Muslim-American community.”

Khera pointed out that work place discrimination against Muslims is at an all-time high. From 2008 to 2009 25 percent of all complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were Muslim bias-based. In addition, community opposition to the construction of mosques has increased and is “getting uglier.”

Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans are entitled to the same fundamental rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution to all Americans, Khera pointed out and added that today American Muslims are anxious about their future in a society that increasingly looks upon them with hatred and suspicion and that is moving away from our shared values of freedom, truth and fairness.

Senator Kyl questioned Khera

As the hearing came to a close, Senator Kyl questioned Khera on a statement on the Web site of her group, Muslim Advocates, which counsels American Muslims not to speak to law enforcement officials without a lawyer present. Kyl also read a list of American Muslims who face charges of criminal activity. He asked if Khera stood by the statement on the Web, and if she believed those individuals should be prosecuted.

“I fully understand the threat that we are facing,” Khera responded. “Those who engage in criminal acts must be stopped and brought to justice, and every American has a civic duty to report criminal activity to law enforcement.” At the same time, she said, “every American has the right to seek legal advice.”  She noted that the legal system can be complex and said she saw nothing wrong with encouraging community members to seek legal advice.

Rep. King criticizes Durbin hearings

Not surprisingly, the hearing on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims was criticized as a sideshow by the Republican Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, who organized the high-profile congressional hearing three weeks ago into the so-called radicalization in the Muslim community. "This just perpetuates the myth that somehow Muslims are the victim of September 11," King, told Fox News. 

King questioned why Durbin wouldn't examine civil rights violations of other religious groups. "The best they can do is come back with these hearings by Senator Durbin, which is somehow trying to create the illusion that there's a violation of civil rights of Muslims in this country. It's absolutely untrue, and to me it makes no sense," King said.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.