Long Island Muslims fear their congressman’s hearings could flame Islamophobia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 12:02 AM
The top issue on everyone’s mind this month at the Islamic Center of Long Island was this: What could be done to stop planned congressional hearings on alleged hidden radicalism among American Muslims and mosques?
The House hearings, scheduled to begin next month, have touched off a wave of panic throughout the U.S. Muslim community, which has spent much of the past year battling what it sees as a rising tide of Islamophobia. Conference calls, strategy sessions and letter-writing campaigns have been launched. Angry op-eds have compared the congressional inquiry to McCarthyism and the World War II persecution of Japanese Americans.
But for those who gathered at the Long Island mosque, the coming hearings represented not just a political issue, but a personal one. For the man organizing the hearings was the very lawmaker who was supposed to represent them in Washington – Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). Long before he had become their enemy, he had been one of their community’s closest friends.
“He used to come to our weddings. He ate dinner in our homes,” said the mosque’s chairman, Habeeb Ahmed, a short medical technologist with graying hair sitting near the front. “Everything just changed suddenly after 9/11, and now he’s holding hearings to say that people like us are radical extremists. I don’t understand it.”
At the meeting that day, Ahmed, a 55-year-old immigrant from India, was surrounded by more than a hundred Muslim leaders from New York and beyond.
There were Sunnis and Shias. There were doctors, engineers and pharmacists who had left Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh to remake their lives in the United States. There were African Americans who had embraced Islam decades ago and new converts who were learning what it meant to be Muslim in America.
Some had flown in from as far away as Chicago. But the majority were regulars at the local Islamic center, including Ghazi Khankan, who had been one of its earliest members and had defended it for years against King’s scorn.
“We have nothing to hide,” Khankan said. “No matter what King says, others know that we are a peaceful community.”
Although no member of the Islamic Center has ever been accused of terrorism, King has singled out the mosque as a hotbed of “radical Islam” and called its leaders extremists who should be put under surveillance. He maintains that most Muslim leaders in this country aren’t cooperating with authorities, even as arrests of homegrown terrorists are rising greatly.
Now, as the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, King said he is finally in a position to do something about it.
“My first goal is just to have people even acknowledge this as a real issue,” King said. “This politically correct nonsense has kept us from debating and discussing what is one of this country’s most vital issues. We are under siege by Muslim terrorists.”
Friend, then foe
The Islamic Center of Long Island sits just beyond the boundaries of New York’s 3rd Congressional District. It is an imposing green-domed building nestled amid suburban split-levels and cul-de-sacs.
Muslims were once a rarity here, but a wave of immigration in the 1980s changed that. Today, 70,000 Muslims are estimated to live on Long Island, worshiping at about 22 mosques.
With 400 members, the Islamic Center is one of the largest and most prominent of the mosques. It took the lead in hosting the recent all-day summit for Muslim leaders, at which the discussion often devolved into anguished debate over how to deal with King.
We should pray for him, some said. We should try to vote him out of office, others said. One man proposed organizing protests outside King’s congressional office. Another said that kind of reaction would play into the congressman’s hands.
The problem has plagued the Westbury mosque for the past nine years. But it was not always so.
During King’s earliest days as a congressman, he gave speeches at the Islamic Center and held book signings in the prayer hall. He took in Muslim interns and was one of the few Republicans who supported U.S. intervention in the 1990s to help Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.
In return, the Westbury mosque presented him with an award for his work in the Balkans. Many of its leaders regularly contributed to his campaigns, often paying $500 a person to attend his fundraisers.
King was even the main guest of honor on the day of greatest pride for the community: the 1993 opening of its long-awaited $3 million prayer hall, which many proudly note was built completely with locally raised funds. For years, a picture of King cutting the ceremonial ribbon hung on the bulletin board by the mosque’s entrance.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
A breach of faith
In the weeks after the twin towers crumbled and the Pentagon burned, local reporters swarmed Long Island’s mosques looking for reaction.
On Oct. 18, Khankan and another Westbury mosque leader were quoted in the local paper, repeating conspiracy theories that it wasn’t Muslims who had orchestrated the attacks.
Safdar Chadda, a dentist from Pakistan who was then co-president of the mosque, speculated that “the Israeli government would benefit from this tragedy by now branding Palestinians as terrorists and crushing them by force.”
Their statements infuriated King, who had lost friends in the attacks, as had many in his district, which lies 30 miles east of Manhattan.
“At this key moment for our country, the worst attack on us in history, these people who I thought were my friends were talking about Zionists and conspiracies,” he said. “They were trying to look the other way while friends of mine were being murdered.”
The day after the newspaper article appeared, the mosque’s founder, Faroque Khan, went to a neighboring synagogue in a largely unsuccessful attempt to retract and explain what members of his mosque had said.
In the weeks that followed, Khan and others issued progressively stronger statements condemning al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for the attacks. They forwarded these to King’s office, but the damage was already done.
To King, the fact that those words were ever uttered branded the mosque’s leaders as radicals.
When told that King had specifically cited his statements after Sept. 11 as the turning point, a pained look spread across Khankan’s face.
“You have to understand the confusion and shock at the time,” said Khankan, who is 76, with a shuffling walk and a shock of white hair.
Tapes of Osama bin Laden had just been released in which he praised but was not yet openly taking responsibility for the attacks. Many at the mosque still remembered that Muslims had been immediately and falsely blamed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
After Sept. 11, Muslim children were being bullied at school, and someone had shot a pellet into the Islamic Center’s window.
Khankan said he had spent most of his life working for Muslim groups, trying to create a bridge between outsiders and his community. That his words may have helped plant the seed for King’s hearings, he said, is a heavy burden.
Targeting Islamic extremists
Since then, King has not set foot in the Islamic Center. Over the past decade, he has become one of the country’s loudest voices on the dangers of Islamic extremism.
He has called for ethnic and religious-based profiling of air passengers and told Politico that there are “too many mosques in this country.” He later tried to clarify that remark, saying he meant that “too many mosques in this country are not cooperating with law enforcement and too many have been taken over or are heavily influenced by extremists.”
Of late, he has repeatedly alleged that 85 percent of U.S. mosques are run by radical extremists – an assertion he attributes to a 1999 statement by Sufi leader Hisham Kabbani at a State Department forum. It was rejected at the time by every major Muslim organization in the country.
But for some of King’s Muslim constituents, his most hurtful words came in the form of his 2004 novel, “Vale of Tears.” The story revolves around a fictional congressman who stumbles across a plan by terrorists – who are associated with a Long Island mosque and work with al-Qaeda and remnants of the Irish Republican Army – that could kill hundreds.
King dedicated the novel to “those who were murdered on September 11” and explained his purpose in the preface: “It describes how vulnerable we can become if we lower our guard – for even the slightest moment – and if we fail to recognize that our terrorist foes comprise a worldwide network with operatives active within our borders.”
Few take issue with King’s assertion that homegrown terrorism is rising dramatically.
In the past two years, according to Justice Department statistics, nearly 50 U.S. citizens have been charged with major terrorism counts – all of them allegedly motivated by radical Islamic beliefs.
But many law enforcement leaders disagree with King’s allegation that most Muslim leaders do not cooperate with authorities. In the past, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has praised the community. And in a speech last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said: “The cooperation of Muslim and Arab-American communities has been absolutely essential in identifying, and preventing, terrorist threats. We must never lose sight of this.”
Experts also point to a string of recent terrorism cases that were foiled or reported by Muslim leaders.
Working with King
Many Muslim leaders say that after years of reaching out, they’ve given up on changing King’s mind. At the Islamophobia summit, one man compared it to hitting his head against a brick wall: “If nothing changes, why keep beating yourself up?”
But one leader stood up and urged the crowd to keep trying. His name was Mohammed Saleh, and to the surprise of many, he called King a reasonable man.
“I have met King recently and talked to him,” said Saleh, 63, a balding bespectacled immigrant from Bangladesh. “In many ways, he is a good man.”
Their relationship, Saleh said later, began as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. As one of King’s constituents, Saleh asked for help because someone with his name was on the government’s airport watch list and he was being detained on international flights.
King helped devise a system by which Saleh could call authorities a few days in advance when he flies. Since then, Saleh has organized fundraisers for King and arranged for him to meet others in his circle of Bangladeshi Muslims.
Some Muslims question why Saleh would raise money for a man who regularly attacks their community. But as a pharmacist who has spent his life weighing dosages and prescriptions, Saleh said he has scrutinized the political makeup of King’s district – a conservative strip amid a largely Democratic state. King won 72 percent of the vote in last year’s election, he notes.
“I am a pragmatist, and it’s clear we have to learn to work with Mr. King,” Saleh said.
Saleh also says that as one of King’s Muslim constituents, he bears a responsibility for King’s views on Muslims. “If it was a broken relationship that sent King on his path now,” Saleh said, “perhaps a new relationship will lead him back.”
So, he spent most of last week trying to meet with King to express his concerns about the hearings and ask King to make sure they are fair.
In response, King said he is willing to listen but plans to push ahead with the hearings no matter how uncomfortable they may be for Muslims in his district or nationwide.
“This was not a fight I was looking for,” he said. “I originally came into this as a supporter and friend of the Muslim community. But now we are facing a danger from within. And we need to see it and recognize it, because it’s not something we can ignore anymore.”
Staff researchers Jennifer Jenkins and Julie Tate contributed to this report.