King Hearings: Did We Learn Anything?

Rep. Peter King (R-NY)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowFaiza Patel came on to discuss her new report, "Rethinking Radicalization", on how law enforcement officials try to deter "homegrown" terrorism in the United States. Joining her was Arun Venugopal, who talked about what happened at yesterday's hearings in Washington, D.C., on radicalization within the Muslim American community.

Now that Rep. Peter King's hearing on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response" has finally come and gone, it's time to figure out if the big headache was worth it. After enduring all the public controversy surrounding the event, did we at least learn something?

Arun Venugopal and Faiza Patel aren't so sure. Both said the hearing was light on anything resembling "evidence." To make King's case—which, in a way, includes arguing that such a hearing is necessary in the first place—the chairman invited two American Muslims, Abdirizak Bihi and Melvin Bledsoe, who had seen members of their family seduced by radical Islam and turned to terrorism. Venugopal said that these witnesses were brought in to shine a flashlight on the community organizations that have drawn Rep. King's suspicion.

For both of them, the response was that the leadership of the Muslim American community pressured them not to come out with these revelations. When they turned to mosque leadership and the Counsel on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), they really tried to get  them to stifle the story, saying it would discredit the community, hurt the larger American Muslim community, and the FBI didn't have their interests at heart.

"The central focus was on how the American Muslim leadership has been running contrary to the efforts of law enforcement officials," Venugopal explained. "That's what Chairman King was really trying to get at here."

If Bledsoe and Bihi's testimony is to be believed, it paints a troubling picture of certain American Muslim organizations, and behooves elected officials to investigate them. That's what a hearing like this should be: presenting accusations and then allowing the accused to answer for them publicly. The purpose should finding out if what Bledsoe and Bihi said was true, if the Muslim community is indeed being obstructionist. That could be a valuable discussion.

But this hearing wasn't. None of the organizations whose good faith was in question were invited to speak. Venugopal said that was a problem.

There were obvious omissions from the witness stand. Namely, the Muslim community groups that were not called to sort of speak to the accusations against them, like CAIR. What people were saying was inappropriate or wrong about the hearing was not simply its premise, but what they saw as King's cherry-picking of witnesses. Although he had a couple of compelling ones who've seen radicalization up front, it wasn't King who called Sheriff Baca from the LAPD to speak about cooperation, it was the Democrats, the minority members of the committee. None of the major Muslim groups could speak to the accusations or give us a better sense of why they're not cooperating if they're not; or if they are, how are they doing it? That was sort of the elephant in the room.

The guest list for the hearing was already short to begin with. Faiza Patel found fault with a thin, niche list of witnesses, which didn't do justice to the stated purpose of the hearing, or the issue of Muslim radicalization at large.

The very fact that chairman King had only two anecdotes at the hearing demonstrates that he wasn't really talking about the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community. If you want to talk about this issue, which is a global issue in the sense that you want an overview of what the actual extent of radicalization is and whether we should be worried, look at how many cases we've had over last decade. The statistics on that are that we've had cases of homegrown terrorism, but the number is low, so that's not very beneficial to stirring up fear about issue. That's why two anecdotes were chosen.

"I don't think these hearings told us anything about the extent of the problem," Patel said.

The big question for detractors of King's hearing was whether it came off as unnecessarily confrontational. Might its accusatory tone—charging that American Muslims resist societal integration and cooperation—disenfranchise the targeted community even more, without any answers to show for the trouble? Patel felt that was the case. 

I just wonder whether King, who started these hearings with the premise that there were too many mosques in the United States and 80 percent of them were extremist, and then set up a hearing, which was very much one-sided, to demonstrate that point of view without having major Muslim groups over there, just seems to me wrong way to go about it.