Peter King's name has been uttered for years in the halls of the Islamic Center of Long Island. The Republican congressman, who represents the district where the center is located, was once thought of as a partner and friend.
"Mr. King and the Islamic Center of Long Island were quite close at one point," said Habeeb Ahmed, the center's chairman. "He actually inaugurated our main mosque -- the sanctuary itself -- [and] he attended weddings of the community."
But everything has changed. Now when Peter King is spoken about at the Islamic center, the mention evokes anger, fear, and puzzlement.
As the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee chairman prepared to convene the first in a series of hearings on what he calls "the radicalization of American Muslims," the controversy spread well beyond the Long Island center.
Claims and Controversy
News of the inquiry hearing, titled "The Extent Of Radicalization In The American Muslim Community And That Community's Response," has tapped into a deep-seated but often unspoken ambivalence about Islam in the United States and has been met with protests, impassioned editorials, and debates on television news networks.
King maintains that he is doing his duty and just trying to protect his country from a growing fundamentalist threat. Critics say he is waging a campaign of "McCarthyism" against American Muslims and stigmatizing an entire community. In the 1950s, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a series of congressional hearings designed to root out alleged communist influence in U.S. institutions.
In a March 7 interview with CNN, King said his critics failed to grasp reality.
"They are caught in a world of denial," he said. "They want to believe everyone loves each other, [that] we can all hold hands [and] sing 'Kumbayah.' My job is to keep Americans alive."
But it is not King's desire to protect his country that has generated criticism.
The congressman has largely stood behind his assertion that 80-85 percent of U.S. imams are extremists. King attributes that figure to one man: Sufi leader Hisham Kabbani, who made the comment in 1999 but didn't specify how he arrived at it.
The claim was widely rejected by Muslim organizations at the time and still is today.
As the first hearing approached, however, King appeared to be wavering. In a video compilation of recent television interviews posted on his website, he said, "I do not know today. It could be more than 80 percent, it could be less than 80 percent." He also conceded that radicalization could be occurring "within a very small minority" of the Muslim community.
Still, he said his hearings were "essential" and vowed that he wouldn't acquiesce to "political correctness," despite receiving threats in recent days and needing extra security.
King has also claimed that Muslim Americans have a track record of not cooperating with law enforcement. Numerous officials have countered that claim, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who in a speech last month said, "The cooperation of Muslim and Arab-American communities has been absolutely essential in identifying, and preventing, terrorist threats."
The House Homeland Security Committee's top opposition member, Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, has invited Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca to testify at the upcoming hearing. Baca has praised Muslim leaders for assisting and partnering with law enforcement.
King countered that many law enforcement officials were afraid to speak publicly about Muslims' lack of cooperation.
Opposition And Support
Corey Saylor, director of governmental affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, fears that the King hearings represent institutionalized discrimination against Islam.
"I think the larger concern right now is an atmosphere that we're shifting from just old-fashioned discrimination into an area where we might be seeing more government-sanctioned discrimination," he said.
"We have a law that was passed in Oklahoma that would prohibit Muslims from entering into Islamic wills and doing Islamic finance," Saylor said. "There's a law that's going to be examined by the legislature in Tennessee that would actually make it illegal to be a Muslim in Tennessee. And then we have congressman Peter King putting forth false allegations about the Muslim community and giving it the sanction of the halls of Congress."
In a March 8 letter to King, CAIR, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and dozens of other groups said, "Treating an entire community as suspect because of the bad acts or intolerant statements of a few is imprudent and unfair, and in the past has only led to greater misunderstanding, injustice, and discrimination."
Hundreds attended a "Today, I Am Muslim, Too" rally in New York's Times Square on March 6 to protest the hearing.
A March 9 survey by the Gallup polling company showed that 52 percent of Americans think it is appropriate for the hearing to focus on the radicalization of Muslims in the country. Thirty-eight percent believe the hearing takes the wrong approach.
"Everything started from a mosque," said Sylvia, a New York City retiree. "You know, they indoctrinated the people in the mosque -- the first World Trade Center [tower], the second World Trade Center [tower] -- everything started from a mosque. It didn't start from church or from someplace else. I don't like it."
Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota who became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress in 2006, will also testify at the upcoming hearing.
He has described the hearing as "the wrong course of action to take" and believes King should expand the scope of his investigation to look at groups other than American Muslims.
Still, few deny that homegrown fundamentalist terrorism in the United States is on the rise.
According to Justice Department statistics cited by "The Washington Post," nearly 50 U.S. citizens have been charged with major terrorism counts during the past two years, all of them allegedly inspired by radical Islamic beliefs.
The latest edition of the U.S. government's annual "Country Reports On Terrorism" said that 2009 saw an increase in the number of U.S. citizens who acted as operatives for foreign terrorist organizations.
Reassurance And Ramifications
The White House is treading a careful path on the controversy.
President Barack Obama sent his national security adviser, Denis McDonough, to a Washington, D.C., Muslim center on March 7 to weigh in on the matter. Many observers saw the speech as the White House's effort to reassure anxious Muslim Americans ahead of the hearing.
McDonough cautioned against "stigmatizing or demonizing entire communities because of the actions of a few," adding, "In the United States of America, we don't practice guilt by association."
He also said the White House is working on "dispelling the myths that have developed over the years, including misperceptions about our fellow Americans who are Muslim."
But the Long Island Islamic Center's Habeeb Ahmed fears that American Muslims are going to pay a price for the King hearings.
"There is quite a bit of potential impact because real lives are involved in this. My neighbor may look at me suspiciously. My coworker may look at this [hearing]," he said. "And already many kids in schools are having problems. People are taunting them -- [and] especially the girls who wear the hijab. They are being called 'towel-head,' 'rag-head,' or things like that.
"People do not realize when things come out of their mouths, and especially from this kind of hearing, [that] there are real consequences to real lives."
with additional reporting by Nikola Krastev in New York