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Muslim Americans in Illinois Criticize Capitol Hill Hearing

Many Muslim-American organizations are worried that congressional hearings under way in Washington could stereotype their community as a source of Islamic radicalism in the United States. One of those organizations, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, is holding what it calls a "Muslim Action Day" in the mid-western state of Illinois to demonstrate that such stereotyping is wrong and that Muslim citizens are as American as anyone else. Our correspondent attended the gathering in the Illinois state capital, Springfield.

More than 1,200 Muslim Americans from across Illinois came to Springfield to send a message to state lawmakers.

"We are a core of this community, we are not the other," said Ahlam Jbara. "We are American."

Ahlam Jbara helped organize the 3rd annual Muslim Action Day.

"We care about the same issues as everybody else," she said. "We are people like everybody else. We are engaged, and we care about the political system, and our voices are going to be heard."

That message reached state lawmakers like Will Burns, a representative from Chicago, who now occupies a legislative seat once held by President Barack Obama.

"They help to preempt some of the stereotypes of the Muslim community, and show that the overwhelming majority of the Muslims in the United States and in the state are law abiding, tax-paying good citizens, who want the same things that everyone else wants - good schools, health care, good roads and good government," said Burns.

The timing of the Springfield event coincides with hearings in Washington focusing on what some consider to be the radicalization of some members of the Muslim-American community. The hearing is being led by New York Congressman Peter King, who has said American Muslims were not doing enough to help law enforcement conduct terrorism investigations. A study by Duke University and the University of North Carolina indicates that Muslim-Americans have been the biggest source of tips leading to arrests in U.S. terrorism cases.

The director of the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Ahmed Rehab, condemns the Washington hearings, and especially Congressman King.

"Rogue politicians like Peter King, and I’m sorry to call him that, but that’s how I feel about him, will tell you that the American Muslim community is radicalizing, and they aren’t doing enough to counter the radicalized element in their midst," said Rehab. "Well, actually, we are, and what we see here in Springfield here today is precisely how we do that."

The hour-long rally in the rotunda of the state capitol gave a platform to members of the Muslim American community, who also spoke out about the hearings.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago says, although the issue of radicalization is at the forefront of this year’s Muslim Action Day, Illinois Muslim Americans are actively engaged in communities and government throughout the year.

"Although this issue is important to us, it’s a very minor issue," said Sahloul. "We don’t see really that much radicalization within the community. What we are seeing here in Illinois is a community getting engaged, typically. We have people participating in the political process. We run every year a register-to-vote campaign in the council. People are energized to be part of the system, not outside the system."

CAIR Chicago’s Ahmed Rehab says, despite widespread efforts to be engaged, he is concerned the focus on Muslim Americans will only intensify as the 2012 presidential election cycle gets under way.

"The whole issue of Muslim community, radicalization, Islamaphobia, etcetera, it is being politicized more and more," he said. "And as we approach the next presidential elections, I fear it may explode just like it did with the last presidential election cycle. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that this is happening. It’s not good for our nation. It’s not an intelligent way to discuss the issues. It’s insulting."

Organizers of Muslim Action Day hope the annual event will spark an interest in state government among the many youth who attend, and encourage them to be involved in politics.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.