New York Rep. Peter King's hearings on what he has characterized as the "radicalization of Muslims in America" open Thursday amid a clamor of outrage from many quarters.
King, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has been branded by critics as racist, and his planned series of hearings characterized as an attack on an entire religion and reminiscent of the Cold War Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
But the main subject of King's first hearing, while raising hackles, is hardly a new topic for hearings on Capitol Hill.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, as chairman of the Senate's homeland security committee, had 14 hearings on homegrown radicalization between 2006 and 2009. Topics ranged from general risk assessments to radicalization in the Somali American Muslim community.
"He has always said there's all sorts of extremism," Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips says, "but that the one that is most threatening to us now is Islamist extremism."
Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, experienced pushback from American Muslim activists. But the incendiary rhetoric and media coverage that have surrounded King's scheduled House hearing were largely absent.
"Nobody ever accused him of race-baiting or religious bigotry," Phillips says.
King has told supporters that he won't back down to "hysteria created by my opponents." Dozens of people from King's Long Island district died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
So, how to account for the difference between Lieberman's efforts in the Senate, and King's endeavor in the House?
Personality and past play a role, observers say.
King, whose voluble style stands in contrast to Lieberman's low-key demeanor, has been criticized in recent days for his past support of the Irish Republican Army. Decades of violence between the IRA and the British military largely ended in the late-1990s with the Belfast Accord.
King has defended the IRA — widely viewed as having employed terrorist tactics — as a legitimate force against British control of Northern Ireland.
He has outraged many Muslims and others by claiming that an overwhelming majority of mosques in America are controlled by radical imams, and was a force behind opposition to a plan to build an Islamic community center near ground zero in lower Manhattan.
However, it may be an underlying assumption in King's inquiry — that the American Muslim community has failed to cooperate with law enforcement efforts to ferret out radicals — that has drawn the most considered criticism.
"It's perfectly legitimate to investigate radicalism," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. "There has been an increase in people drawn to these movements, and there has been a rapidity to their radicalization — though their numbers remain infinitesimal."
For his part, Lieberman has noted an acceleration of domestic incidents: Of 46 cases of "attempted homegrown Islamist terrorism" in the U.S. between 2001 and December 2009, he says, 13 occurred in 2009.
But the "community dimension" of King's hearing — formally titled "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response" — makes Hoffman, and others, uncomfortable.
That aspect of the hearings, Hoffman says, "might not be warranted by the facts."
The facts may argue the opposite, suggests expert Christopher Hewitt, author of Understanding Terrorism in America.
Hewitt, who tracks domestic terrorism plots, says most of the people who have been caught "have been caught by people in the mosques dropping a dime."
"I'm not sure what King thinks his shtick is going to be — who's he beating up?" says Hewitt, who, like Hoffman, has no argument with the congressman's efforts to look at the "real danger from Islamic extremists."
Drawing Fair Comparisons?
Some critics have compared King's efforts to congressional hearings held by anti-Communist crusader Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
Though Hoffman is among those who dismiss the parallels, saying McCarthy's hearings targeted specific individuals, historian Dan Berger argues that there are parallels.
"There are differences, of course, but they both have a backdrop of moral panic around something that's represented as having a fearsome or alien ideology," says Berger, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.
"I think it's pretty frightening," Berger says of King's hearings. "The attempt to pass it off as some kind of democratic investigation seems disingenuous to me.
"It's an attempt to maintain fear around something that sounds scary," he says, as McCarthy did using a "mediated bully pulpit."
But though King has drawn widespread criticism for expanding his examination to the Muslim community as a whole, those who are immersed in the issue of domestic terrorism say there are legitimate reasons to hold hearings on Islamist radicalization in the U.S. — particularly with surveys suggesting that second-generation Muslims in the U.S., like their European counterparts, Hewitt says, are more susceptible to radicalization than their parents.
"The questions Chairman King is raising are important ones," says Lieberman. "Our government needs a more comprehensive approach to combating and preventing homegrown radicalization."
The House hasn't held such hearings. And many are waiting to see how King conducts them — and himself — when he gavels them open today.
Ideally, Hoffman says, the hearings can serve to "illuminate the issue, and provide policy options." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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