Islamists claim credit for Durbin hearing

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Leaders of a fundamentalist Hamas-linked mosque in Bridgeview, Ill., say they deserve credit for persuading Sen. Dick Durbin to hold his March 29 hearings on claims of “anti-Muslim discrimination.”

Durbin, the deputy chief Democrat in the Senate, visited the Bridgeview mosque around March, and had his picture taken with the mosque’s imam, Kifah Mustapha, and it director, Jamal Said. Both men were named an unindicted conspirator in a 2008 trial of five men who smuggled $12 million to the Muslim terror group, Hamas. The picture was discovered by the Investigative Report on Terrorism, a non-profit that tracks Islamist groups in the United States.

“He met with the [mosque] committee, listened to the concerns,” said Zaher Sahloul, the Syrian-born president of the mosque and of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “At that time there was the plan of Rep. [Pete] King … [to hold a March 10 hearing on Islamic radicalization and] we told him this was real real concern with us,” said Sahloul. “He’s a good senator, he listens to constituents … and he’s open-minded,” said Sahloul.

A March 24 statement issued by the mosque, which was released on the day Durbin’s hearing was announced, said “Durbin had promised that he would give the Muslim community a fair hearing and he has kept his word.”

Durbin’s office acknowledged that the senator visited the mosque, but denied the mosque’s claim of credit. “The notion that this [March 29] hearing was planned as a result of this meeting is simply incorrect,” said the statement. “The hearing has been long-planned and was first discussed internally late last year in response to stories about Quran [Koran] burnings and discrimination involving building permits for mosques.”

Politicians need to be careful when engaging with unfamiliar groups, said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice-president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Sometimes the most recognizable or discernible mosque is the most radical one in a [Muslim] community, and the rest of the community is pinned to those messages unfairly,” he said. But, he warned “when engaging with any organization, it is important to understand what the leadership stands for.”

The mosque visit, and the Senate hearing, are part of a larger effort by Democrats to bring Muslim groups into their political coalition. Prior to the 2000 election Texas governor George W. Bush tried to win the support of Muslim groups in the United States, but he took a more cautious approach after the jihadi attacks on 9/11 that killed almost 3,000 Americans.

Since then, Democratic legislators, and affiliated advocacy groups, have established ties with leaders of numerous Muslim groups, many of which have their own ties to Islamist and terror groups.

Islamic groups are trying to boost their electoral clout.

Last August, for example, Sahloul’s Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago launched a voter-registration dive, because “according to the Quran and the Prophet, the only way to make the values of Islam beneficial and relevant is to have a voice within pluralistic democratic society, and to stand for our Islamic beliefs as well as the principle of justice,” according to a statement on the council’s website.

A large proportion of the roughly 2 million Muslims in the United States are not observant, or ignore the radical-linked leaders. Other groups of modern Muslims groups that oppose violence and that urge the separation of mosque and state, complain frequently that they are ignored by Democratic legislators and advocacy groups.

When asked by TheDC at the March 30 hearing if he knew that his visit to the mosque would result him meeting people named in the money-smuggling trial, Durbin responded by saying that he meets thousands of people per year, and denied that poor staff work had led to the mosque meeting.

In a subsequent statement, Durbin’s office defended the visit to the Bridgeview mosque. “American Muslims are entitled to the same civil rights as any other American, including the right to participate in the political process and meet with their elected officials,” said the statement. “Anyone who thinks otherwise makes our point for us – bigotry and discrimination against Muslim Americans are real and some will stop at nothing to portray millions of American Muslims as something other than loyal, patriotic members of our nation.”

But the mosque’s leadership is widely recognized as especially fundamentalist.

In June 2010, the Illinois government denied the imam the title of police chaplain, even though he completed the four-day course, because of his Hamas ties. In 2004, the Chicago Tribune reported that moderates lost control of the mosque to the Islamists following an internal power struggle.

In an introductory video on the mosque’s website, attending women are nearly all shown wearing Islamist-style head-covers or body-covers. The mosque’s website does not criticize Hamas’s attacks on Israel civilians, but does offer several condemnations of Israel’s defensive operations against Hamas groups in Gaza. “Day after day, we have witnessed hospitals bombed, ambulances burned and people bleeding to death, crushed under the rubble of destruction by the Israeli war machines,” said a Feb. 2009 statement by the Imam, which contained no criticism of Hamas for its murder of many Jews.

Since 1991, Hamas has attacked Israeli civilians thousands of times, using inaccurate rockets and suicide-bombers. These attacks included the August 2001 mass murder at a Sbarro restaurant, in which seven adults and six children were murdered.

Durbin “doesn’t realize who these people are that he’s dealing with, and how he’s being used,” said Robert Spencer, operator of the Jihad Watch blog. “The concept of ‘Islamophobia’ was invented to manipulate [U.S. politicians], and to muzzle free-speech about Islamic jihad and Islamic supremacism,” he said.

During the March 29 hearing on discrimination against immigrant Muslims, Durbin repeatedly decried “intolerance” and “bigotry” by Americans. Durbin’s lead witness, Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil-rights office, declared to the senators and an audience of advocates from Muslim and progressive advocacy groups that the department will “use every means to transform the headwinds of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusiveness and opportunity.”

Similarly dramatic testimony was provided by another invited witness, Farhana Khera, who is a Muslim lawyer who works with the Bridgeview mosque, and is a former Democratic staffer for Durbin’s judiciary committee. “Anti-Muslim bigotry is playing out ferociously across America today … [and] has been simmering and growing since the tragic events of September 11th,” she declared.

But these dramatic claims were accompanied by scant evidence of discrimination in a nation of 310 million people that has seen numerous bloody attacks by observant Muslims since 2001, and very little criticism of those attacks by Muslim groups.

Khera cited only a few examples of anti-Muslim harassment or bullying in schools, a single stabbing, the shooting of two non-Muslim Sikhs, and local hostility to construction of a Muslim mosque. Perez said the federal government has investigated 800 claims of criminal activity, and brought 37 cases involving 50 people, since 2001. That’s fewer than four criminal cases per year.

The March 29 hearing was attended by many Muslim and progressive groups, including Human Rights First, Intersections International, the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The friends committee “collaborates[s] with American Muslims on important issues such as the ban on torture, protecting programs for low income people, immigration, and supporting religious freedom for all,” according to a FCNL press release.

The Islamic Society of North America also sent an attendee. In 2008, ISNA was identified as an unindicted conspirator in money-smuggling trial.

Representatives of Islamic groups say there are up to 7 million Muslims in the United States. In her testimony, Khera said the number is between 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, or between 3 million and 6 million.

But the 2008 Religious Identification Survey , done with Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., pegged the number of Muslims in the United State at 1.3 million. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center estimated a population of 2.5 million. The number of eligible voters in the Muslim population is much lower than the total population, and the number of swing-voting Muslims is lower still. Only 11 percent lean Republican, according to the survey.

The risks to Democrats of allying with the radical Muslim leaders were also exposed at the hearing when Senate Republican pressed Khera, Durbin’s sole Muslim witness.

While being questioned by Sen.. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Khera — a former staffer for the committee — reasserted her advice that Muslims should only talk to police officials when they have a lawyer present. When questioned by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, about deaths threats towards critics of Islam, Khera cited the legal protection of the First Amendment’s free-speech clause, but eventually conceded that it was “inappropriate” to “threaten to kill somebody because of their political views, religious views.”

Politicians “have the right to meet with anyone they want,” said Schanzer. But, he added, “they can draw criticism from people who wish to hold their legislators accountable.”