Planned congressional hearings next month exploring the efforts of al Qaeda to recruit Muslims in the United States for terrorist attacks here have sparked widespread criticism among religious leaders, including several Jewish leaders.
“These hearings should be broadened to deal with religious extremism in different communities,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “But having begun the conversation saying there is an inherent link between Islam per se and terrorism is not helpful to religious tolerance in America, America’s strategic interests or the valid questions that have to be raised.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said he understood that Muslims are the only ones being invited to testify.
“I find that un-American,” he said. “We have a tradition in this country of bridge building, of ethnic and interfaith alliances, and about one group fighting for the other. It’s not about one community being under attack and having to fight that battle alone. …“Those of us who are actively engaged with the American Muslim community will not have the opportunity to speak out in defense of our brothers and sisters in the Muslim world, and that I find extremely disappointing. The tenor of these hearings will result in greater fear and misunderstanding of the American Muslim community. They need to be tempered by faith leaders extolling the virtues of American Muslims the overwhelming majority of whom are as committed and as dedicated to our country as any other faith community.”
Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which will conduct the hearings, told The Jewish Week that the committee’s objective “is not to demonize the Muslim community but to attempt to find out the extent to which the enemy has infiltrated the community.”
He pointed out that al Qaeda is at war with the United States and “made a conscious decision” to recruit Muslims here.
“They can’t attack from outside, so they are recruiting people under the radar screen,” he explained. “They bring some to Afghanistan for training, and others never leave the country. …[Attorney General] Eric Holder said he can’t sleep at night knowing the large number of young Muslim men willing to take up arms against their country. This is a war-and-peace issue with an enemy who is being recruited in our own country.”
He insisted that were al Qaeda recruiting any other group — be they Jews, Hindus or Irish Catholics — he would have the same hearings with that group in the witness chair. Although the witness list is still being prepared, King said he expected “primarily Muslims” in the first panel.
“There will be Muslims and Arabs, and maybe a witness who is not,” he said. “We’re putting the witness list together, and there will be people with different experiences. This will be a series of hearings that could be a month or two apart; it depends on the issues raised.”
Rabbi Nancy Kreimer, director of Multi-faith Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said that although she did not know details of the hearing, it doesn’t pass the smell test.
“It doesn’t work to take a particular group of people and put them under a slide and say, ‘You people are likely to be such and such,’” she said. “It reminds me of the red-baiting in the ‘50s, and of an unofficial assumption that a group of people were likely to be that way and think that way. It’s a bad path to go down. And when it is said that [the committee] will be looking into American Muslims who are being recruited by [al Qaeda], it puts a shadow over them and leads other people to be suspicious of them simply because they are Muslim. We all know this doesn’t smell right — that there are probably better ways to go about it.”
Rabbis Kreimer, Schneier and Saperstein are all members of Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims, Upholding American Values. The group, composed of 21 religious groups, was founded last August and gained support in response to protests over plans to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and the aborted plans of a Florida preacher to burn the Koran.
The other Jewish member of the group, Rabbi Burton Visotsky, is director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute, the organization at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary that is involved in inter-group activities.
“Given the climate in the U.S., we felt it important to stand with our colleagues,” he said.
Rabbi Visotsky said the proposed hearings “are of deep concern to me because I don’t think it is the place of the U.S. Congress to be singling out a specific religious group and targeting them with concern about terrorism. I don’t like it any more than if Congress were to investigate the Jewish community for dual loyalty with Israel; it’s inappropriate.”
“We have the First Amendment,” he continued. “Congress is enjoined from making any law against the free exercise of religion. Terrorism is one thing, but religion is not in its purview.”
But King insisted that Rabbi Visotsky has it wrong.
“If we were at war with an international Jewish terrorist group and it was recruiting Jews in the United States, we’d look at Jews to see who was cooperating,” King said. “People can’t hide behind a religion. We’re not investigating anyone because of religion. … We’re targeting the group that the threat is coming from. This is life or death we’re talking about.”
Mohamed Elsanousi, director of community outreach for the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group of Muslim individuals and groups, said that his organization has not been asked to testify and that “putting the entire Muslim community under a cloud of suspicion is not the American way.”
“There is no question we would love to cooperate with the committee to keep and make our country safe and secure,” he added. “I’m not opposed to investigating terrorism. We are not against the hearing, but we want to address these issues together as an inter-religious community. The real issue here is that we need to be united to protect our nation. We don’t want to single out only the Muslim community.”
Earlier this month, a group of primarily Arab and Muslim organizations sent a letter to the leadership of the House of Representatives to express concern about the upcoming hearing and saying they “hearken back to hearings held in the 1950s by then-U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy.”
“In the course of justifying the focus of the hearings, Chairman King has made broad and unsubstantiated assertions about the American Muslim community,” it said. “For example, he continues to perpetuate the myth that 80 percent of mosques in America are run by extremists, implying that they are hotbeds of extremism. To the contrary, experts have concluded that mosque attendance is a significant factor in the prevention of extremism.
“In addition, during a recent interview, Chairman King made a statement insinuating that American Muslims are not American: ‘When a war begins, we’re all Americans. But in this case, this is not the situation. And whether it’s pressure, whether it’s cultural tradition, whatever, the fact is the Muslim community does not cooperate anywhere near to the extent that it should. The irony is that we’re living in two different worlds.’
“If Chairman King is suggesting that American Muslims are somehow less American — simply by virtue of their faith — then that is an affront to all Americans. … The hearings should proceed from a clear understanding that individuals are responsible for their actions, not entire communities.”
At a recent meeting of the newly formed Manhattan Government Relations Committee of UJA-Federation of New York, King spoke about the need for constant vigilance to guard against the threat of Islamic terrorism worldwide. And he said the city, Long Island and Westchester are the biggest targets for Islamic terrorism.
“The threat is real,” he said. “We can’t protect everyone everywhere, so we should go where the greatest threat is.”
He said his priority would be to make sure that security grants are allocated to those with the greatest need, including New York and Jewish groups.
Visotsky said he rejected King’s “characterization of terrorism as Islamic.”
“Terrorism is real, and some terrorists are Muslim and some are not,” he said. “When he makes it sound like terrorism is a tenet of Islam, that is wrong. It’s inappropriate to damn an entire religion of more than one billion people for the acts of crazy terrorists who pretend to speak in the name of that religion.”
King insisted he is not doing that, but he pointed out that in the last two years the FBI has arrested “53 homegrown terrorists … and all have been living here legally. They were either born here or immigrated here.”
Rabbi Schneier said the hearings should be “broadened in such a way that other ethnic communities and faith communities can attest to the tremendous contribution and solidarity that American Muslims have for our country.”
But King rebuffed that suggestion, saying: “We live in the real world. I don’t have the luxury of feel-good politics and everyone saying love one another when people out there are trying to kill us.”