By Dr. Javeed Akhter

Illinois senior Senator Richard Durbin's decision to hold congressional hearings on "Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims," appears to be motivated by his stated desire to uphold the age old American value of religious tolerance.  It is also an act that required political courage.  Unlike Peter King's hearings on "Radicalization in the American Muslim Community", Durbin's has gone largely unrecognized.

Durbin's decision to hold the hearings is all the more remarkable as in the environment of rising anti-Muslim hostility in the United States, (A Pew Research Center poll in August of 2010 shows the proportion of Americans that held a favorable view of Islam declined from 41% four years ago to 30%), any politician that appears to empathize with Muslim Americans does so at his own peril.  It is the new third rail of politics.

In upholding Muslim civil rights a politician has little to gain and much to lose.  Muslim Americans are small in numbers and are not big campaign donors.  Additionally they are just starting to make an impact in political activism.  Durbin risks the ire of many individuals and groups that are actively engaged in anti-Islam-Muslim activities.  Peter King questioned the very premise of Durbin's hearings.  "The best they can do is come back with these hearings by Senator Durbin, which is somehow trying to create the illusion that there's a violation of civil rights of Muslims in this country. It's absolutely untrue, and to me it makes no sense."

 The fallacy of Peter King's statement became apparent at the Durbin hearings.  Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez,  the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, recounted many instances of hate crimes and testified that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) registered "a 150 percent increase in complaints of discrimination against Muslims since 9/11."

This is an underestimate as many incidents are not reported.   The hearings helped increase awareness of the problem of anti-Muslim discrimination at the work place that has remained sub rosa

Even though it would have been politically expedient Sen Durbin would not turn his eyes away from these civil rights violations.  The premise of JFK's book "Profiles in Courage" is that politicians make exceptional decisions based on personal convictions that risk their political careers.   The book sets out to recount the actions of "men whose abiding loyalty to their nation triumphed over all personal and political considerations, men who showed the real meaning of courage and a real faith in democracy, men who made the Senate of the United States something more than a mere collection of robots dutifully recording.."  Platitudinous and melodramatic as it is this assertion is nevertheless true.  The stories chosen in the book are of Senators whose political careers suffered grievously when they took a principled stance.  But the consequence of an unfaltering stance based on conviction does not have to be negative.

We need to applaud Dick Durban's act of political courage.  It is true that an act of political courage is harder to discern than that of physical courage.  It is never as clear as running in to a burning building to save a pet.  Additionally we have to battle our prejudice that most politicians have ulterior motives whose main impulse is political survival at any cost. 

Interestingly Sen Durbin appears to have been at least partially motivated by his outrage at Peter King's earlier hearings of maligning all Muslims with guilt by association.  Durbin's altruism is the best antidote for Peter King's bigotry.  If Joe McCarthy had his own Dick Durbin history would be different.

Javeed Akhter, a physician, is founding member of a Chicago based Muslim American think tank "The International Strategy and Policy Institute."