Senate hearing looks at Muslim rights, harassment

March 29, 2011

It was billed in Washington as the first-ever congressional hearing
on the civil rights of American Muslims. But it played more like a
second act than a premiere.

In many ways, the hearing led by
Senate Democrats on March 29 was the dramatic antithesis of one that
House Republicans held earlier in the month on homegrown Islamic
radicalism.

Instead of gavel-banging, decorum prevailed. Sobering
statistics stood in for emotional anecdotes, and laughter, not sobs,
resounded in the committee room. While an audience packed the gallery,
the dais was empty save for the six senators who came and went. But the
most striking change was the second hearing's focus: crimes committed
against American Mus­lims, not by them.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D.,
Ill.) said he convened the hearing because of rising Islamophobia,
manifested by Qur'an burnings, hate speech and restrictions on mosque
construction.

Though he did not mention him by name, Durbin twice
criticized House Homeland Security Committee Chair­man Peter King (R.,
N.Y.), who convened the earlier hearing on the "radicalization" of
American Muslims. The premise of King's hearing was that American
Muslims do not cooperate with law enforcement probes into violent
members of their community.

"We should all agree that it is wrong
to blame an entire community for the wrongdoing of a few," said Durbin.
"Guilt by association is not the American way."

King told Fox News
on March 28 that Durbin's hearing "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."

Durbin,
the chamber's no. 2 Demo­crat, wasted little time in rebutting King.
"Some have even questioned the premise of today's hearing," he said in
his opening remarks, "that we should protect the civil rights of
American Muslims."

Durbin also criticized King's controversial
claim that there are too many mosques in this country. "Such
inflammatory speech from prominent public figures creates a fertile
climate for discrimination," Durbin said.

Durbin's star witness
was Thomas Perez, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general
for civil rights. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a "steady stream
of violence and discrimination" has targeted Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and
South Asians in the United States, he said.

"In each city and town
where I have met with leaders of these communities, I have been struck
by the sense of fear that pervades their lives—fear of violence, bigotry
and hate," Perez said. "The headwind of intolerance manifests itself in
many ways."

Perez noted that the Justice Depart­ment passed a
grim milestone in Feb­ruary when it secured a guilty plea from a man who
torched a playground at a Texas mosque: he was the 50th defendant
charged in a federal criminal case of post-9/11 backlash.

Muslim
complaints about workplace discrimination have increased 150 percent
since 9/11, Perez said, but he and other witnesses seemed most upset by
reports that many Muslim children are harassed at school—called
"terrorists" and told to "go home."

"We have a growing docket of
cases involving Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian students," Perez
said. Muslim students form the largest category of religious
discrimination cases handled by the Department of Justice's education
division, he added.

"Parents worry, 'Will my child be next?'" said
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, who also
testified. "And they worry about the future: Will America be hospitable
to other faiths? Will its better angels prevail?"

Durbin voiced
doubt throughout the hearing that the Islamic law system, which offers
guidance on subjects like charity and prayer, is a threat to American
jurisprudence, as some conservatives warn.

Cardinal Theodore
McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and an experienced
diplomat, said Catholic bishops "stand with our Muslim brothers and
sisters in defense of their dignity and rights." McCarrick demurred,
however, when asked by Durbin to defend the rights of Muslims to build a
mosque near Ground Zero in New York.  —RNS