By Michelle Boorstein and Felicia Sonmez
Less than three weeks after House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) held a controversial hearing on Islamic radicalization, another congressional panel is set to address issues related to American Muslims.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday is holding a hearing examining the civil rights of American Muslims.
The hearing, which is being billed as the first of its kind, will also mark the first hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's newly-formed Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. The subcommittee is chaired by Durbin; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is the ranking member.
"Our Constitution protects the free exercise of religion for all Americans," Durbin said in a release announcing the hearing. "During the course of our history, many religions have faced intolerance. It is important for our generation to renew our founding charter's commitment to religious diversity and to protect the liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights."
The Durbin hearing does not look likely to generate the same amount of controversy as King's hearing on radicalization did, partly because there does not appear to be coordinated opposition, Republican or otherwise.
In an interview with The Post late last week, King said he believes there's "no harm" in holding the hearing, although he questioned the premise that hate crimes against American Muslims have been on the rise -- a point others have made the case for as well.
"I think hearings like this could perpetuate this myth of victimhood among the Muslim community. . . . There's still nine times more attacks against Jews than there are against Muslims. We don't live in a perfect country, but certainly Muslims aren't the number-one victims in the country," King said.
King also noted that those who criticized his hearing for focusing exclusively on radicalization among Muslims have been largely silent on the Durbin hearing, which deals exclusively with the civil rights of American Muslims.
"It appears as if he's just interested in protecting the civil rights of Muslims," King said. "All of us have civil rights."
Two Democratic Senate aides with knowledge of the hearing said that it was not a response to King's hearing. Nonetheless, coming the same month as the King hearing, it's evidence that the issue of attitudes toward American Muslims remains very much in the public eye -- as well as in the political arena.
Testifying about what most experts agree is a recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions will be: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (the former archbishop of Washington and an internationally-known voice on peace and justice issues), legal advocate Farhana Khera (former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that dealt with civil rights and religious profiling), Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez and law school dean Alex Acosta (former assistant attorney general for civil rights under George W. Bush).
Perez's boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, last fall called anti-Muslim hate "the civil rights issue of our time," according to Khera, who told The Post he said it during a meeting she attended with faith leaders at the Justice Department around the time that a tiny Florida church was threatening to burn Korans to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Acosta and Perez have not yet responded to requests for comment.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric picked up in the public square in the last year, including efforts to stop mosque construction projects, politicians citing sharia law as a major threat to the American legal system and extensive public debate about the appropriateness of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. But hard data has been difficult to come by on whether actual civil rights violations have increased or if it's more an issue of challenging voices being given a bigger megaphone.
Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates (an affiliate of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers) said she plans to testify that the country needs a more coordinated, comprehensive way of tracking hate crimes data. She also will argue that state and local governments don't typically have the resources to pursue major anti-Muslim hate crimes cases and that the Justice Department should step up.
"We'd like to see the Justice Department take a high-profile hate crimes case to really send the message that this won't be tolerated," she said in a phone interview. "I think the hearing will educate Congress and the public about the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and the repercussions on everyday Americans."
One problem is that there isn't sufficient data for the past year or two, which is when most experts believe such incidents increased. Khera plans to cite Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data showing that from 2008 to 2009, the agency received a record 803 complaints alleging anti-Muslim bias, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.
She said she also plans to cite FBI hate crimes statistics -- which even the FBI notes are voluntarily reported from local offices and are incomplete -- showing that the number of reported hate crimes against Muslims more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2008 (the most recent year).
However, the data isn't clear. Reported anti-Muslim cases rose significantly until 2006, when the number of reported crimes went down. Each year by far the largest category of religious hate crimes is against Jews, a religious minority of roughly similar size.
McCarrick's appearance was coordinated by the U.S. Catholic of Conference Bishops, which does a lot of interreligious dialogue with Muslim leaders. He said he will speak about "the basic American premise of religious freedom for everybody -- in general and specifically about our Muslim brothers and sisters."
There is no word yet whether Durbin is planning further hearings on the topic; King told The Post last week that he is planning another House Homeland Security Committee hearing in early June focusing on Islamic radicalization in the American prison system.
"It's pretty much a consensus from people we've been talking to in the prisons administrations that this is a cause for concern and that there is radicalization," King said, adding that with regard to his previous hearing, "I can tell you I've never gotten more political support on anything than I've gotten on this."