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Congress Begins Hearings On Muslim Radicalization

LYNN NEARY, host:

Congress will take up another controversial issue this week: A series of hearings about the American Muslim community. Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, will take testimony on what he calls the radicalization of Muslims in the U.S. And he'll talk to Islamic leaders about what they're doing to stop it.

The high-profile hearings have concerned Muslims across the U.S. and in Congressman King's district on Long Island. NPR's Robert Smith went there to talk to some of King's constituents.

ROBERT SMITH: Seaford, Long Island is the kind of small town where moms pull up in their SUVs to pick up their kids from karate.

(Soundbite of karate class)

SMITH: And the dads go across the street to the deli for the Rustler sandwich.

Unidentified Man: A garlic hero toasted, roast beef and melted mozzarella.

SMITH: Yeah, Seaford's got that suburban everyone-gets-along vibe. Congressman Peter King has a home here in Seaford, but he's spent a lot of time recently on cable news shows talking about his concern that some Muslims on Long Island and around the country are becoming more extreme.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York; Chairman, House Homeland Security Committee): I believe it's important to have this investigation on radicalization of the Muslim community. We know that Al-Qaida is trying to recruit...and I've met with Muslim leaders in my own communities and I asked them why they're not more forthcoming...and also I'm calling on Muslim leaders to be more critical in denouncing it.

SMITH: This surprises the Muslim leaders back in King's district. There's a mosque just up the parkway in Woodbury. And I went to talk to the guy in charge. He suggested we meet nearby for lunch.

(Soundbite of utensils clanging)

SMITH: At a Benihana in a local strip mall.

Mr. HABEEB AHMED (Chairman, Islamic Center of Long Island): It's really fun to watch them prepare the food.

SMITH: Habeeb Ahmed is the chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island. He estimates there are 75,000 Muslims who live out here. He says the thing that confuses him is that Congressman King used to be a friend of Islamic Center. King inaugurated the main building. Members of the mosque have held fundraisers for King.

Mr. AHMED: So, why suddenly Muslims have become your number one priority? Why not other groups?

SMITH: Ahmed says focusing only on Muslims in the hearings could lead to more discrimination. In fact, it's already increasing tension around here. A couple weeks ago, an interfaith group staged a protest outside of Congressman King's office.

(Soundbite of song, "This Land Was Made For You and Me")

SMITH: They were met by a counter-protest of people who support Congressman King.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you a Muslim? I'm a Christian.

Unidentified Man #2: Are you proud of the crusades? Are you proud of the crusades?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, yes, we should have won. We should have won. We wouldn't have Osama bin Laden. Look what's happening in your country.

Unidentified Man #2: This is my Country.

SMITH: Talking to people out on Long Island, they say this is where the argument often ends up; 9/11 is still a raw subject in these towns. It's only an hour commute from lower Manhattan.

Back on the main street of Seaford, Bob Sexton says that hopefully the congressional hearings will be a little more productive.

Mr. BOB SEXTON: But I don't think it hurts to have a national spotlight on it.

SMITH: If there really is a danger, he says, everyone should be talking about it.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.