WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American Muslims face a rising tide of religious discrimination in U.S. communities, workplaces, and schools nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior Justice Department official said Tuesday.
Evidence of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, aired at a Senate Judiciary hearing, poses a challenge for President Barack Obama as his administration works to foster good relations with American Muslims at a time when the United States is threatened by homegrown terrorism.
"We should all agree that it's wrong to blame an entire community for the wrongdoing of a few. Guilt by association is not the American way," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who chaired the hearing.
He said Muslims account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population but more than 14 percent of religious discrimination cases investigated by the federal government and 25 percent of religious discrimination cases involving workplaces.
The Justice Department has investigated over 800 incidents of violence, vandalism and arson against people believed to be Muslim, Arab or South Asian, since the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. homeland security officials say the United States faces a home-grown threat from Islamic radicalization, including attempts by al-Qaida to radicalize and recruit U.S. Muslims to carry out attacks here and abroad.
The hearing quickly took on a partisan edge when Durbin responded to criticism from Republican Peter King, chairman of a House panel widely criticized for a hearing on radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community less than three weeks ago.
King said on Monday that the civil rights discussion would "perpetuate the myth that there is a serious anti-Islam issue in this country."
But at the start of the session Durbin shot back: "Inflammatory speech from prominent public leaders creates a fertile climate for discrimination."
"All of us, especially those of us in public life, have a responsibility to choose our words carefully. We must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won't tolerate religious discrimination."
Thomas Perez, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said anti-Muslim bigotry has brought a surge in the number of federal discrimination cases involving zoning boards and other local authorities that have acted to prevent mosques from opening in their communities.
The Justice Department has begun 14 such cases since May 2010, around the time when plans for a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attack in New York seized media headlines and ignited a national political uproar.
Before last May, the government had pursued only 10 land-use discrimination cases over a decade.
"In each city and town where I have met with (Muslim) leaders, I have been struck by the fear that pervades their lives," Perez told the panel.
Muslims have also witnessed a fierce debate over a Florida minister's threat to burn a Koran, as well as efforts in half a dozen U.S. states to ban the use of Muslim religious law on the pretext of a threat to the American judicial system.
Perez and Durbin both likened discrimination against Muslims to what Catholics experienced generations ago.
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