WASHINGTON – Swastikas inscribed on her family’s cars — and the police response to the crime — brought Gaithersburg resident Samira Hussein to Washington Thursday.
“The authorities don’t take the Muslim community seriously,” said Hussein, a victim of anti-Muslim sentiment and one of many Maryland residents among the hordes of people trying to secure a seat in a controversial government hearing on Islamic radicalization in the United States.
Hundreds of people lined the halls of a congressional office building as early as 7 a.m. for fewer than 75 seats open to the public. About 40 of those seats were in an overflow room, down the hall from the hearing room, where the testimony was being simulcast.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held the hearing — titled “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” — in spite of criticism that Muslims should not be singled out in the investigation of the causes of domestic terrorism.
“My children are just as American as Peter King’s,” said Hussein, who grew up in the U.S. and raised four children in Montgomery County, where she is involved in local politics and raising awareness about Islam.
Hussein’s view is shared by many congressional Democrats who opposed the narrow focus of the hearing.
“I believe this hearing would have been more useful had it taken a broader look at domestic terror and radicalization,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, in a statement Wednesday. “We all need to work together to keep our nation and Americans safe, and we need everyone’s cooperation to do so. Targeting one segment of our population is not helpful to that objective.”
Although none of Maryland’s representatives sit on the House Homeland Security Committee — and odds for a seat in the hearing were slim — strong feelings about the Muslim community led many Maryland residents to Capitol Hill. Watching the testimony on CSPAN was not going to suffice.
“Peter King is doing the right thing,” said Bethesda resident Olgolam Akhter, a civil engineer who moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1979 and is a self-described “moderate Muslim.” The hearings may help Americans better understand how and why radicalization occurs among Muslims, he said.
Some Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge and explore the motivations for Islamic radicalization, Akhter said.
“In the Muslim religion there are many, many good things,” Akhter said. But the good things cannot blind members of the Muslim community to the potential for fundamentalist terrorism, he said.
Bridget Kustin took the 6:17 a.m. MARC train from Baltimore to make the hearing. Kustin, an anthropology graduate student studying Islamic finance at Johns Hopkins University, is not Muslim, but wanted to show solidarity for Muslims.
“I’m calling on all non-Muslims to support the rights of this minority population,” Kustin said. “I love America because of its pluralism, not in spite of it.”
Muslims at home and abroad need to know that they have allies and making the trip down to Washington for the hearing helps get that message out, Kustin said.
For New Jersey native Gabriel Garcia, a sophomore studying government and economics at the University of Maryland, College Park, the reasons for attempting to sit in on the Homeland Security hearings were professional and personal.
Professionally, Garcia is an education and homeland security policy intern for Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and he wanted to stay informed on the issues.
Personally, he has memories of being a confused fifth-grader on Sept. 11, 2001.
“How do you explain to a kid that people just flew planes into buildings?” Garcia said.
His mother worked in an office building near the World Trade Center in New York and had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety. He had gone to day care in one of the World Trade Center buildings. His family lost friends in the attacks.
Those memories were at the front of his mind as he stood in line for the hearing. But Garcia thinks it’s unreasonable to hold hearings that target Muslims.
“It’s so outrageous, I had to come out (to the hearing),” he said.
Maryland was also represented in the audience line by people with ties to the state who work for Washington think tanks.
“We feel strongly it (the hearing) is going to lessen our community’s safety,” said Sameera Hafiz, a Cantonsville native who now lives in Washington and works for the Rights Working Group, a human and civil rights nonprofit.
The government should focus on individual behavior, not an entire group of people, when trying to stem terrorism, said Hafiz.
Alejandro Beutel of Berwyn Heights, a government and policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, said that his organization was not judging the hearing until it is clear whether there was “broad brushing of an entire faith community.”
“We’re taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Beutel as he stood in line, 15 minutes after the hearing started, when congressional staff announced that the overflow room was full.