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Senate hearing looks at anti-Muslim bigotry

By Rachel Streitfeld, CNN
  • Some senators brought up the radicalization of American Muslims
  • Witnesses testify about anti-Muslim bias
  • A Muslim group director says anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a new high

Editor's note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible Belt in "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door," Video airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 2.

Washington (CNN) -- When Sen. Richard Durbin called a hearing on anti-Muslim bigotry, his office insisted it was not a response to a controversial House hearing that recently examined the threat of home-grown terrorism.

"Terrorism is not the subject of today's hearing," Durbin, D-Illinois, said in his opening remarks.

But two Senate Republicans said they couldn't discuss the Muslim-American community without looking at its potential for radicalization. Earlier this month, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, prompted a flurry of controversy and media attention by tackling "the radicalization of American Muslims" in a separate hearing.

In the hearing Tuesday, Republicans said the threat demands attention.

"There are efforts to recruit and radicalize young Muslims in America that have to be dealt with," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

Both Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, agreed that bigotry against any religion is wrong.

"But if it's part of a narrative that says it's improper to point out the obvious, that too many young Muslims are being radicalized to join jihad and everyone should stand against that, then count me out," Kyl said. "Political correctness cannot be allowed to stand in the way of identifying those who would do us harm."

Durbin and his fellow Democrats on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hewed to the stated purpose of his hearing -- "measures to protect the rights of American Muslims" -- questioning witnesses about the enforcement of hate crime legislation and Muslim-Americans' commitment to American law and values. Several offered personal stories of ancestors immigrating to America to pursue religious freedom.

"Guilt by association is not the American way, and American Muslims are entitled to the same constitutional protections as every other American," Durbin said.

Witnesses testified about a rise in anti-Muslim bias in employment decisions and listed specific acts of intimidation against Muslim students and crimes against Muslims. The Obama administration's top civil rights official told senators that combating a post-9/11 backlash was a "top priority" and said the Justice Department has investigated more than 800 anti-Muslim threats and acts since 2001.

Farhana Khera, an attorney and executive director of Muslim Advocates, said the threat is rising.

"In the last several months, anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a disturbing new level," Khera said. "Prominent religious, military and even political leaders have joined the fray, feeding fear and hysteria."

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a retired archbishop of Washington, said Americans should set an example by their treatment of fellow citizens who are Muslim.

"As a community that has been the target of religious discrimination, we understand the need today to bring attention to protecting the civil rights of our Muslim brothers and sisters," McCarrick said. "We see religious freedom as an essential foundation for our life together in our own nation and across the globe."

A former Bush administration civil rights official said President Barack Obama had continued his predecessor's commitment to addressing a backlash against Muslims after 9/11.

"Emotions remain charged, and the desire to blame remains high," said Alex Acosta, a former assistant attorney general. "We need to insure that all people in this land are free to practice their faiths without fear of retaliation of reprisal."

Meanwhile, Republicans had further questions about potential radicalization of Muslim-Americans.

While witnesses at the Senate hearing listed cases of American Muslims targeted by bigotry, Kyl responded with a list of attempted extremist attacks on U.S. soil or against Americans.

Graham said Muslims in the United States must do their part to help combat the threat of home-grown terror.

"To the American Muslim community, I will stand with you as you practice your religion and you exercise your rights under the Constitution," Graham said. "But I am asking you to get in this fight as a community and let it be known to your young people that there are lines that you will not cross."