Sheriff Lee Baca previews House panel testimony at ACLU “People’s Hearing”

On Thursday, March 10, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will testify before the first in a series of hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community. Organized by Peter King, a Republican Congressman from New York and the chairman of the House’s Committee on Homeland Security, the hearing is titled:  “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”

On Tuesday night, Baca spoke to a hearing convened by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, a “People’s Hearing to Defend Religious Freedom.” Seated alongside representatives of faith-based community groups, including Progressive Jewish Alliance Regional Director Eric Greene, Baca gave the 60 people in the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire an early taste of the kind of testimony he was planning to offer when he testifies before King’s panel on Thursday.

“Violent extremism is not simply a Muslim problem,” Baca said. “It is a people problem—people of all religious backgrounds and all kinds of faiths.” Baca pointed out that in the nearly ten years since the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, 77 attacks or attempted terrorist attacks have been made by extremist non-Muslims in the United States. In the same period of time, there have been 41 plots against U.S. targets discovered and thwarted that were organized by Muslims both in the U.S. and internationally.

Instead of holding hearings that hold up members of a particular religious group for unwarranted scrutiny, Baca proposed a model of “public trust policing,” which depended upon members of all communities—including the Muslim community—feeling comfortable and able to speak to law enforcement about suspicious activities going on in their communities. To establish such an atmosphere of trust, Baca relies on an interfaith council of more than 200 leaders of various faiths as well as a specific unit of the Sheriff’s department dedicated to communicating with the Muslim community of Los Angeles County.

To illustrate just how necessary this kind of policing is, Baca noted another statistic: In the last 10 plots planned in the United States by Muslims, Baca said, “seven of them were discovered and foiled because of Muslim people coming forward and helping local law enforcement.”

“Clearly,” Baca continued, “the issue of whether or not Muslims cooperate or don’t cooperate is already an established fact.”

While King has chosen to focus his committee hearings on the radicalization and cooperation of American Muslims, the ACLU’s “People’s Hearing” focused much of its attention on Islamophobia.

Moderator Isabelle Gunning invited panelists to present “evidence” of Muslim-Americans being victimized and targeted. Among the examples mentioned were the protests last summer against the building or expansions of mosques and Islamic community centers in New York and Temecula, CA, the invective-filled protest in Feb. outside an Islamic Circle of North America fundraiser in Yorba Linda, CA, the numerous instances of vandalism and arson perpetrated against mosques across the country and the two elderly Sikh men who were shot in Elk Grove, CA, last week. The men, dressed in turbans and wearing the traditional Sikh beards, may have been mistaken for Muslims—something that has happened on more than a few occasions since 2001.

The calm and tolerant atmosphere of the “People’s Hearing” on Tuesday night allowed for some conversations that likely won’t come up in a heated congressional hearing room or over the crowded and often highly partisan airwaves.

Lo Sprague, a board member of an interfaith group who attended the hearing, posed a potentially troublesome question to the panel: “What should one do when religions teach hate?”

Everyone on the panel took a stab at the question—even the sheriff. Waxing philosophical, Baca said, “Man cannot destroy what God loves and use God’s name at the same time.”

But the most thoughtful response to the question came from the panel’s lone Muslim voice, Edina Lekovic, director of policy and planning for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

“For Muslim Americans, there has been an undue pressure to condemn our coreligionists when something terrible takes place,” Lekovic said. And while she used to find this expectation frustrating, Lekovic has since changed her mind.

“We do have, each of us, a moral responsibility to speak up when our coreligionists act in a way that we believe is immoral,” Lekovic said.