White House Seeks to Allay Muslims’ Fears on Terror Hearings

Mar 7, 2011 Issues: Domestic Radicalization / Radicalization Hearings

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
New York Times
March 7, 2011

STERLING, Va. — As a Republican congressman prepares to open hearings on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser visited a mosque here on Sunday to reassure Muslims that “we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few.”

The White House billed the speech by the adviser, Denis McDonough, as a chance for the administration to lay out its strategy for preventing violent extremism. But the timing was no accident; Mr. McDonough was in effect an emissary from the White House to pre-empt Representative Peter King of New York, the Homeland Security Committee chairman, who has promised a series of hearings beginning Thursday on the radicalization of American Muslims.

“In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association,” Mr. McDonough told an interfaith but mostly Muslim audience of about 200 here at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, known as the Adams Center. “And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all.”

Mr. McDonough made no explicit mention of the hearings or Mr. King. But his speech came on a day when the back-and-forth over Mr. King’s plans crescendoed, from the airwaves of Washington’s Sunday morning talk shows to the streets of Manhattan to this northern Virginia suburb, an area packed with Muslim professionals, many of whom are extremely wary of Mr. King and his plans.

In Washington, Mr. King, who represents parts of Long Island, faced off on CNN with Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the only Muslim in Congress. Mr. Ellison said he would testify at Mr. King’s hearing on Thursday despite his deep conviction that it was wrong for Congress to investigate a particular religious minority.

In New York, 500 people demonstrated near Times Square to protest the hearings and to call on Mr. King to expand his witness list to include other groups.

“That’s absolute nonsense,” Mr. King said in a telephone interview, adding that Al Qaeda was trying to radicalize Muslims and that its effort was the leading homegrown terrorism threat.

“The threat is coming from the Muslim community,” he said, “the radicalization attempts are directed at the Muslim community. Why should I investigate other communities?”

As the Times Square demonstrators held up placards declaring “Today I am a Muslim too,” Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is a co-founder of a project to develop an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero, addressed the crowd.

“To single out Muslim Americans as the source of homegrown terrorism and not examine all forms of violence motivated by extremist belief — that, my friends, is an injustice,” Rabbi Schneier said.

Mr. King and Mr. McDonough each took pains on Sunday to say that he had no quarrel with the other. “We welcome any involvement in the issue,” Mr. McDonough said of the hearings. “It’s an important issue.”

Mr. King said that he and Mr. McDonough had spoken recently and that he did not disagree with any element of Mr. McDonough’s speech at the mosque.

For weeks, Muslims have been expressing deep anxiety over the hearings, which Mr. King has titled “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”

He said witnesses would include Mr. Ellison; Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia; and Zudhi Jasser, a Phoenix physician and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. (Dr. Jasser made headlines last year when he was publicly critical of Mr. Obama’s statement supporting Muslims’ right to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero.)

In addition, Mr. King said on Sunday that he would call as witnesses two relatives of people who had been radicalized. He would not name them, but said that one had a nephew who was murdered and that the other had a son who committed “horrible crimes.” He said they would detail “how this happened, what it did to their families, what it did to the community, how this originated in mosques.”

The congressman said additional hearings — he is not certain how many there will be — would most likely focus on topics like radicalization in prisons and the flow of foreign money into mosques. But because Mr. King has not been specific about his plans, rumors are swirling.

“Everybody I talk to worries about it,” Mr. Ellison said during his Sunday morning appearance with Mr. King on “State of the Union” on CNN. He added, “It’s absolutely the right thing to do for the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee to investigate radicalization, but to say we’re going to investigate a — a religious minority and a particular one, I think, is the wrong course of action to take.”

Yet for many Muslim leaders, the initial outrage and fear is giving way to a determination to participate in the testimony and shape the outcome. Rizwan Jaka, a board member of the Adams Center here, said leaders of mainstream mosques were eager to testify about their cooperation with law enforcement.

“We’re ready to dialogue,” Mr. Jaka said. “We feel that we want to make sure we are part of the solution.”

Many counterterrorism officials say maintaining the trust of American Muslims is critical to attracting tips and foiling plots.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of ignoring the Islamic nature of terrorism by preferring terms like “violent extremism,” a term that Mr. McDonough used frequently in Sunday’s speech.

“We have a choice,” Mr. McDonough said. “We can choose to send a message to certain Americans that they are somehow ‘less American’ because of their faith or how they look.”

“If we make that choice,” he added, “we risk feeding the very feelings of disenchantment that may push some members of that community to violent extremism.”

Mr. Obama has said from the outset of his presidency that he wants to reach out to Muslims; during a major speech in Cairo in June 2009, he called for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world. But the decision to weigh in at this moment — days before Mr. King’s hearings — is a tricky one for a president. Many Americans erroneously believe that Mr. Obama is Muslim (he is Christian), and he seems to generate controversy whenever he dips into such waters, as with the Manhattan mosque last year.

Mr. Jaka, of the Adams Center, said the White House had asked whether Mr. McDonough could come to deliver the administration’s message. Sunday’s event, in a brightly lighted gymnasium, was rife with interfaith symbolism; it began with a color guard ceremony led by Boy Scouts, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and a reading from the Koran.

Mr. McDonough opened his speech by talking about his own Roman Catholic roots; his parents had 11 children, one of whom is now a priest.

“The bottom line is this,” Mr. McDonough said. “When it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.”

Joseph Berger contributed reporting from New York.