Empowerment Outage

If Peter King wants to empower moderate Muslim-Americans, why didn’t he invite any to his hearing?

Rep. Peter King

If Rep. Peter King was concerned that his pet issue, Muslim radicalization, was in danger of being overshadowed by the debt crisis, he had a strategy: attack the New York Times. At Wednesday’s Homeland Security Committee hearings on the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, King called out the “vacuous ideologues at the New York Times“—an apparent reference to a Roger Cohen op-ed suggesting in the wake of the Norway attacks that anti-Muslim demagogues, including King, pose a threat of their own. “Let me make this clear to the New York Times and their acolytes in the politically correct, moral-equivalency media: I will not back down from holding these hearings,” he said.

Of course, getting headlines isn’t the same as addressing the issue. If King’s goal was to find real solutions to a real problem, his volley at the Times was a distraction. But, given how little of Wednesday’s three-hour hearing was devoted to proposals for curbing al-Shabaab recruitment, it’s worth asking whether that was really King’s goal. As it turns out, it wasn’t.

Sure, eventually the federal government will need to look at what it can actually do about the problem, King said. But for now, his aims are more modest: raise awareness about the seriousness of the threat, and empower moderate Muslims to speak out against terrorism without fear of stigma. That’s right: awareness-raising and empowerment. Maybe King has more in common with the politically correct left than he lets on.

So before we dismiss King’s hearing as disingenuous, or as an exercise in Islamophobic pandering, let’s judge it by King’s own standards.

Awareness-raising? In this respect, it succeeded. As with King’s first radicalization hearing in March, much of the discussion on Wednesday was about the hearings themselves. King and his fellow Republicans were for them, the Democrats on the committee were against them, and the witnesses, for the most part, were pawns in the battle between the two. Unlike in March, however, this hearing addressed a problem both specific and demonstrably real enough that both sides could at least agree it was a problem. By the end, the evidence was clear that the threat was real, and the few Democrats who tried to downplay it came across as having their heads in the sand.

Al-Shabaab has in the past four years successfully lured a few dozen Somali-American (and Somali-Canadian—more on that below) young men to leave their homes and fly to Africa to join their murderous insurgency. Most have come from the Minneapolis area, whose Somali population is the nation’s largest. One, a 27-year-old named Shirwa Ahmed, became the first known American suicide bomber when he blew himself up in Northern Somalia in 2008. The worry among homeland security analysts is that al-Shabaab—or al-Qaida, with which it shares an ideology and some personnel—will use these recruits’ American citizenship to help them launch an attack inside the United States.

The number recruited to jihad is small, but large enough in proportion to the insular Somali-American population to be disturbing. And, as at least one witness pointed out, Somali-Americans themselves are among the people most concerned about the problem.

Which leads to King’s second stated goal: His hearings were supposed to encourage those anxious Muslim-Americans to stand up and voice their concerns. One problem: Wednesday’s hearing featured not a single Muslim-American. Yes, there was a Muslim-Canadian testifying that he felt empowered: Ahmed Hussen, a member of Canada’s Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security, spoke intelligently about the cultural and economic challenges that confront Somali refugees in both countries. But if King’s hearings are having such salutary effects on Somali-Americans, was a man with “strong links to the American Somali community” really the best he could do?

King’s explanation, when I asked him about it after the hearing, was that conscientious Somali-Americans are still too intimidated to speak out. But if that’s true, some of the blame must fall on King himself. At his first hearing in March, he nodded as a Somali-American named Abdirizak Bihi spoke passionately about his concern that mosque leaders weren’t sufficiently cooperative with authorities. But as soon as Bihi began to discuss the root causes of discontent among young Somali-Americans—broken families, lack of economic opportunity—King cut him off.

King displayed the same distaste for substantive analysis this time around. Luckily, a few of his counterparts on the committee, both Republican and Democrat, appeared interested in actually learning something. Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from California, quizzed both Hussen and Tom Smith, police chief of St. Paul, Minn. Smith’s department has developed a series of programs to build trust in the local Somali community, including school-study programs, open gyms, and even camping trips for the youngsters. These types of touchy-feely initiatives can’t solve the problem entirely, of course. But they’re more concrete than King’s “empowerment” strategy.

Then again, such programs cost money—something the government is trying quite hard to conserve these days. So perhaps the hearing will end up being overshadowed by the debt problem after all.