Earlier this week, Sen. Richard Durbin convened a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.” The subcommittee heard from four witnesses, each giving the same one-sided narrative on this issue, but did not hear from any witnesses offering an alternative view. This was a sharp contrast to the more balanced and, indeed, statesmanlike hearings convened by Rep. Peter King, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, earlier this month.
That committee’s hearing on radicalization in the American Muslim community was an opportunity for focusing the public’s attention on how Congress often works. While the witness statements and exchanges provided those who care deeply about U.S. national security with valuable insight as to what is causing “homegrown terrorism” and hindering law enforcement efforts to stop it, the hearing itself also gave us a window into some procedural, tactical and strategic lessons that can be drawn from that day’s conversations as Congress hopefully continues to examine this issue.
To be sure, the substance of that hearing proved vital. We received first-hand accounts of families experiencing the process of recruitment to the jihadist cause. We learned that there are in fact brave American Muslims like Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy who are fighting — against incredible odds — to counteract the destructive presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its front groups amongst Muslims in the United States. And we learned much about the congressional critics of the hearing as well, if only from their total lack of substance. Most of them, rather than delving seriously into this issue, fell back on tired claims of “Islamophobia,” insisting that the Ku Klux Klan and radical environmentalist groups were deserving of at least equal scrutiny, and that Chairman Peter King’s decision to convene this hearing was McCarthyism risen from the dead.
There were other important takeaways, however, which can inform what happens next.
The presence at the hearing of witnesses Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim Members of Congress, and Sheriff Lee Baca of Los Angeles County (who had previously defended his close working relationship with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR — an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial, the largest terrorism financing trial in U.S. history) caused some who were otherwise sympathetic to Chairman King’s objectives to question whether he was perhaps giving in to political correctness.
But as Hill staffers will tell you, it is common practice for congressional committee chairmen to accommodate a small number of witnesses with perspectives opposite their own, often as a matter of protocol, out of institutional respect for the Ranking Member and/or the other minority party members on the committee. Though there is no hard rule that committee chairmen allow minority-view witnesses to testify, it does happen. While the exact reasons for this are not definitively stated, it is worth observing, for example, that even Chairman Kerry and Ranking Member Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — both staunch advocates of the New START treaty with Russia — last year allowed testimony before their committee from two known treaty skeptics (though they were vastly outnumbered by witnesses in support of the treaty).
So we know that opposing-view witnesses do appear at congressional hearings, and their presence should not necessarily be used to question the committee chairman’s commitment to his/her own stated views.
More importantly, given this reality, the presence of opposing-view witnesses should be seen as another opportunity to draw out significant points, albeit through different methods. Rep. Chip Cravaack saw it as such, when he used what little time he had to question Sherriff Baca on his working relationship with CAIR, pointing out that CAIR has deep ties to Hamas and has arguably been using its relationship with the sheriff to give itself cover to undermine the pursuit of effective counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization policies. Similarly, Senators Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl, despite facing a one-sided witness panel in the Senate Judiciary subcommittee’s hearing, took the opportunity to ask questions of the witnesses that drew out the Senators’ critical points about rising radicalization in the American Muslim community, and the need for Muslim American organizations to address hateful and violent rhetoric emanating from within elements of that community.
Watching these exchanges provides a valuable reminder to those dismayed by the presence of witnesses they may find objectionable: rather than asking “How could the committee let them testify?” they should instead be asking: “How do we turn this into a learning and teaching opportunity?”
Chairman King’s hearing also underscored the level of congressional interest in the subject of radicalization in the American Muslim community, and will hopefully serve as the critical jumping-off point not only for future hearings on it in the House Homeland Security Committee, but also in other congressional committees and subcommittees whose jurisdictions could merit their own scrutiny of related aspects of this important issue.
Some possibilities include, for example:
• The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee could examine the Obama Administration’s foreign policy with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood overseas, and the question of whether our approach to a rapidly changing Middle East runs the risk of empowering that organization and its affiliates in the region.
• The House and Senate Armed Services Committees could examine the extent to which our warfighters are being adequately trained to understand the doctrine of jihad that is motivating our enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Additionally, the Armed Services subcommittees on Oversight and Investigation could arguably further examine the extent of or risks of Islamic radicalization inside the United States military;
• The House and Senate Judiciary Committees could usefully explore whether our immigration policies are contributing to a radicalization environment in some parts of the country (subcommittees on immigration and border enforcement/security), and whether organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood — with radicalized agendas, but through non-violent means — are using civil rights laws and relationships with law enforcement agencies to provide themselves the kind of cover Rep. Cravaack discussed during his exchange with Sheriff Baca;
• The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — specifically, the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Ops — could usefully explore the methodology the federal government uses in providing homeland security grants, and to which outside organizations and entities;
• Finally, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — including the House Subcommittees on Oversight, and on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis, and Counterintelligence — could conceivably take up an exploration of the intelligence dimensions of all these issues.
There would likely have to be some discussion between committees as to which one should take the lead on any number of these issues, as there is arguably some issue overlap. It may also be the case that some of these committees are already taking up these matters in a classified, closed-door setting.
But what is hopefully the case is that Chairman King’s hearing is just the beginning of Congress taking an honest and thorough look at homegrown terrorism and jihad, Islamic radicalization, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts in America, not only through the critical vehicle that is the House Homeland Security Committee, but throughout Congress.
And if such further hearings do take place, hopefully Members of Congress will avail themselves of every opportunity to get to the bottom of this question of national security — no matter who shows up to testify.