King's sound and fury have set America back

The US Congressional hearing on American Muslims turned into a debacle, worsening ill feelings on both sides.

For all the fanfare and bluster, the US House of Representative's committee hearings on "the extent of radicalisation in the Muslim community and that community's response" produced almost nothing of value. The entire affair was so ill conceived and so poorly executed that it put into question whether Peter King, the Republican chairman of the Homeland Security committee, is fit to lead.

Since Mr King first announced the hearings, American Muslims, Arab Americans and a host of civil rights organisations have feared that they could become involved in a witch hunt reminiscent of the US communist McCarthy era. And they have good reason.

Mr King has a long history of making virulently anti-Muslim remarks. For example, he once said: "Eighty-five per cent of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living among us." He argues that, unlike other groups, Muslims do not volunteer to serve America. When challenged, he has asserted that the Muslim American community is abetting radicalism in the country.

His views are distressing enough, but he also has strong associations with individuals who have made Muslim-bashing their life work. These myopic views have helped shape Mr King's views, and influenced his plans for the hearings and promoted the effort on websites, TV and radio programmes.

Despite the build up and hyperbole, Mr King could not muster many examples to make his case. One man testified about his nephew, a young Somali man, who was recruited to fight with the group al Shabaab in Somalia. A father told about his young son who had been radicalised, leading to his involvement in the terrorist murder of a US soldier in Arkansas.

As tragic as each of these cases was, they were unrelated anecdotes that failed to back the argument of widespread radicalisation and a systematic failure of American Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement.

Mr King's third witness, the Arizona doctor Zuhdi Jasser, added nothing to the discussion. Dr Jasser leads a group called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which is best known as a "long-time good friend" of the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. He is a board member for several anti-Muslim propaganda groups and frequently appears on right-wing media shows as their "Muslim voice of choice", since he can be counted on to attack Muslim organisations and to claim that Muslim Americans have become hostage of extremist ideologies.

The bottom line was that the best Mr King's star witnesses could offer were personal anecdotes and an ideological rant.

For their part, the Democrats invited Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American member of Congress, and Sheriff Lee Baca, the top law enforcement official from Los Angeles County. Mr Ellison gave an emotional defence of the Muslim American community, giving examples of Muslims who have served the US and specific examples demonstrating the community's cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

While Mr King had based the hearing on the claim that unnamed law enforcement officials had said Muslim Americans would not cooperate, Sheriff Baca, the only law enforcement official on the panel, testified to exactly the opposite. He praised the community's efforts, turning back every challenge from hostile committee members with specific examples of cooperation.

At the end of the session, two observations became painfully clear. The first was that Mr King's efforts have done little to advance a thoughtful discussion about radicalisation. What also came through was the deep partisan divide that characterised the committee's work. Democrats berated Mr King for convening an unbalanced hearing that demonised a religious community. Some Democrats likened Mr King's hearing to McCarthyism, while others chided him for failing to examine other forms of radicalisation.

For their part, Mr King's colleagues on the Republican side did little more than circle the wagons around their leader. They thanked him for holding the hearings, calling the sessions "historic".

The only bright spot came after the hearings when leaders of major US religious communities announced the formation of "Shoulder to Shoulder", an interfaith effort in defence of American Muslims. The group, which informally came together last fall in the middle of the Park 51 controversy, has become a permanent organisation. Founding members include the leadership of the National Council of Churches (representing the US Protestant churches), heads of five major Jewish communities and representatives from the US Catholic Bishop's Conference.

Ultimately, the King hearings were a bust - a shameful and wasted exercise. They created fear and hurt among Muslims, provided no useful information for law enforcement, and deepened the partisan divide. They were ideological folly - the subversion of an important committee's resources to serve a chairman's obsession with America's Muslims. The entire episode calls into question Mr King's capability to provide effective leadership.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute