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Republicans Twist White Nationalism Hearing Into Islamophobic Forum

Rather than repudiate white supremacist violence, lawmakers chose to attack its critics.

Candace Owens of Turning Point USA testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing discussing hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism on Capitol Hill, April 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

A long overdue congressional hearing on white nationalism and technological platforms on Tuesday turned into an ugly forum for Islamophobia and right-wing denialism of hate violence. The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee hearing could have offered a powerful rejoinder to the growing problem of white supremacist violence in the wake of the New Zealand shooting as well as the suspected arson by white supremacists of three churches in Louisiana and the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee. Instead, Republican Congress members and conservative panelists used the hearing to push Islamophobic narratives.

Throughout the hearing, anti-Semitic and racist comments flooded the comments section of the event’s live stream. Meanwhile, in the chamber itself, powerful lawmakers went about echoing many of the myths that fuel the persistence of hate violence. In his opening comments, Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Georgia) laid out Republicans’ pre-emptive defense against accusations that GOP Congress members are implicitly or explicitly supporting white supremacist and far-right groups. There were two key components to this defense: reviving the outrage over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel and shielding far-right language behind free speech. Collins and his colleagues attempted to equate Omar’s comments with the growing problem of white supremacist violence that spurred the hearing.

The Republicans relied on two witnesses to bring this strategy to life, both equally provocative figures in their respective circles. One was conservative commentator Candace Owens, who gained notoriety through the social media channels at issue. Even though Owens experienced anti-Black death threats in high school, she proved an invaluable guest to question hate violence, accusing Democrats of “fear-mongering, power and control” and calling the well-documented Republican Southern strategy a “myth.” Her inclusion at the hearing demonstrated the Republicans’ “free speech” strategy that protects controversial figures on the right.

Ranking Member Doug Collins argued in his opening that the self-regulating “marketplace of ideas” where citizens can “comparison shop” ideologies will naturally marginalize white supremacist ideologies. But despite criticisms from Democrats about Owens’s role in inspiring the New Zealand shooter and her comments about Hitler, and indignant responses from Owens, the exchange is unlikely to change any minds, and the attention over it only gives Owens more power.

The other witness was Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, and a problematic figure for Jewish groups due to his slurs against Arabs and hardline defense of Israeli policies. He used the majority of his time to brand Omar — as well as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) and the nationwide campus-based group, Students for Justice in Palestine — as anti-Semitic. He endorsed efforts to criminalize the BDS movement, which calls for the use of boycotts, divestment and sanctions to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories. He went so far as to call on lawmakers to cut off federal funding for groups that support BDS.

Republicans regularly fell back on this line, brandishing the episode with Omar to counter the concern over white supremacy, which even the director of the FBI has publicly raised. When Equal Justice Society co-founder and president Eva Paterson gently implored Republicans to do more to restrain Trump’s comments, she was met with a retort from Rep. Greg Steube (R-Florida), who said he’d like to see the same from Democratic lawmakers over anti-Semitism (which he erroneously equated with criticism of Israel). Steube’s statements ignored the Democratic response that followed Omar’s criticism of Israeli lobbying. For her part, Omar remains unbowed in her opposition to the Trump administration’s racist actions, making headlines this week by calling Stephen Miller a white nationalist and introducing legislation to end Trump’s Muslim Ban.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans were not alone in perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes. As a survivor of hate violence invited to offer testimony at the panel, Mohammad Abu-Salha shared the painful story of the murder of his two daughters and his son-in-law in 2015 by their racist neighbor. In the first question directed to Abu-Salha from the dais, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked him, “Did you teach your children, your daughters, hatred?” Abu-Salha pointed to the charitable spirit that grounded his children’s approach to their studies and contributions to their communities. Jackson Lee followed up only to clarify, “By the very fact of being Muslim … you’re not filling children or those in the mosque with hatefulness?”

Later, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) asked Abu-Salha, “Does Islam teach Muslims to hate Jewish people?” With no further context given, these inquiries failed to serve any purpose in the hearing and only reflected the deep suspicion of Muslims in this country even when they are the victims. The hearing’s Islamophobia reached its peak when Klein directly rebutted the “good doctor” to rant about Muslims, citing absurd, bogus figures that “half of the world’s Muslims are anti-Semitic.”

Finally, at the end of the hearing, Rep. Lucia McBath (D-Georgia), whose son was shot and killed in 2012, offered Abu-Salha a chance to share what resources might be useful to him as a fellow survivor of gun violence and racial violence. Abu-Salha expressed frustration with North Carolina’s lack of a comprehensive hate crimes law and a total absence of hate crimes laws in five other states. He conveyed his dismay that the murder of his children — one of the most high-profile incidents of hate violence against Muslims — did not put in motion any protections against hate violence.

The Islamophobic questioning that pervaded the hearing took valuable time away from witnesses who work on the front lines of hate violence, including Eva Paterson, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Eileen Hershenov of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). While some Democrats used their time to ask them incisive questions that enriched the public’s understanding of white nationalism (as well as critical questions directed to representatives from Google and Facebook), too much of these advocates’ considerable collective wisdom was wasted. Even though the ADL as an organization has taken actions described by critics as furthering Zionism and Islamophobia, Hershenov played a constructive role at the hearing, pushing back against efforts to pit Muslims against Jews and refuting Klein’s description of the New Zealand shooter as a left-wing eco-fascist.

The hearing was a reminder that Islamophobic narratives are alive and well in both parties. As white supremacist violence becomes a key issue in the lead-up to the 2020 election, many on both sides continue to lend support to attitudes that delegitimize and undermine the very voices that have consistently condemned white supremacy. It is time for lawmakers to step back and truly listen to directly impacted people who have long been ringing the alarm about white supremacists’ growing influence on the national stage.

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