World and Nation

Hearings on American Muslims reveal a deep partisan rift

WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing on Thursday addressing homegrown Islamic terrorism offered divergent portraits of Muslims in America: one as law-abiding people who are unfairly made targets, the other as a community ignoring radicalization among its own and failing to confront what one witness called “this cancer that’s within.”

Attacked by critics as a revival of McCarthyism and lauded by supporters as a courageous stand against political correctness, the hearing — four hours of sometimes emotional testimony — revealed a deep partisan split in lawmakers’ approach to terror investigations and their views on the role of mosques in America.

Republicans drilled down with questions about whether Muslims cooperate with law enforcement, and singled out a Washington-based advocacy group, the Council on American Islamic Relations, casting it as an ally of terrorists. Rep. Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican and the Homeland Security Committee Chairman who convened the session, declared it a “discredited group.”

Democrats sought to put the spotlight on the lone law enforcement witness, Sheriff Leroy D. Baca of Los Angeles, who testified that Muslims do cooperate, and they cited a Duke University study that found that 40 percent of foiled domestic terror plots had been thwarted with the help of Muslims.

Among the detractors was Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., who sharply criticized the Republicans’ star witness, M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix doctor who, as founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has been deeply critical of fellow Muslims.

Jasser used the cancer analogy; in his testimony, he complained that too often, Muslim leaders counsel Muslims against speaking to law enforcement officials without a lawyer.

“The right to have an attorney present when speaking to law enforcement is a specific principle of American civil liberty,” Sanchez said sharply, adding, “So by what legal principle do you assert that any minority in America should waive that American principle?”

Jasser, who described himself as a devout Muslim, sought to draw a distinction between spiritual Islam and what he called “political Islam” — the notion that a government or country should be run according to principles of Islamic law. He said there was an inherent contradiction between that notion and the American tenet of separation of church and state.

If Jasser was the Republicans’ star, the sheriff was the Democrats’. He said Muslims often cooperated as individuals, “without the cover” of organizations. “The truth is that Muslims are just as independent, just as feisty, just as concerned about safety,” he said. “They certainly don’t want their homes or their mosques blown up.”