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."
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