Illinois senator Dick Durbin opened his Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing this morning on civil rights for Muslims by quoting George Washington. "In this land of equal liberty, it is our boast that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws," Durbin said, making it clear that this is the principle he's aiming to uphold today, as he tries to tackle concerns about how Muslim Americans are treated in this country. But his main focus was placed on rhetoric, not civil rights abuses, toward Muslims.
As examples of "harsh language" directed toward Muslims, Durbin, a Democrat, cited the words of two unnamed Republicans. He first quoted New York congressman Peter King's 2007 comments: "There are too many mosques in this country." (King has been critical of today's hearing, and has distanced himself from the comments Durbin quoted, saying that he was referring to the number of mosques that do not cooperate with law enforcement.)
Durbin then cited, again not by name, former speaker of the House and potential Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's statement last July that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization" as an example of such "harsh language."
"Such inflammatory speech from prominent public figures creates a fertile climate for discrimination," Durbin said.
After the hearing, Durbin said the controversy last summer over the Ground Zero mosque was at least part of the reason he decided to hold today's hearing.
“It was one of the issues," Durbin told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "I felt some of the statements that were made were really unfortunate and I’m glad that [hearing witness] Cardinal McCarrick and others spoke out for basic principles."
But would he characterize opposition to the location of the proposed Ground Zero mosque as bigotry?
“No, I wouldn’t go that far," Durbin responded. "I think there are people who opposed it for legitimate reasons, but there were others who didn’t, who were extreme in their criticism of the Muslim religion.”
“We should be moderate and reasonable in debate and not cross that line into extreme statements," he continued.
For his part, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy blamed in part the 2010 campaign for creating an anti-Muslim environment. "Last year, in the run up to national elections, the rhetoric grew even more heated and threatening," Leahy said in his opening remarks. "There were threats of Koran burnings and some have even asserted that Muslim Americans are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment."
Only two Republicans were present at today's hearing. In his opening statement, Republican ranking member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he wanted to make sure the difference between vocal disagrement and discrimination was acknowledged in the hearing.
"Part of freedom of religion and speech is that we can disagree," Graham said. "Religions are formed because people have different views, and it’s okay to argue. But there are lines you cannot cross.” But efforts to radicalize young American Muslims, he said, ought to be addressed and shouldn't be obscured by a discussion about discrimination.
“To the American Muslim community: I will stand with you as you practice your religion," Graham said. "But I’m asking you to get in this fight as a community, and let it be known to your young people that there are lines you will not cross.”
Arizona's Jon Kyl, the only other Republican at today's the hearing, wondered what purpose was of today's hearing, saying he hoped it would focus on the protection of civil rights for members of all religions.
“If it’s part of a narrative to say its improper to point out the obvious that too many young Muslims are being recruited to radical jihad," Kyl said, "then count me out.”