WASHINGTON -- Days of controversy -- playing out through protests, debates on television news channels, and in the living rooms of average Americans -- reached a crescendo as the chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Peter King (Republican-New York) opened a Congressional hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims.
The inquiry, titled "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim's Community and That Community's Response," has tapped into a deep-seated but often unspoken ambivalence about Islam in the United States.
Critics say the narrow focus on Islamic extremists in the United States is the wrong approach and will stigmatize the millions of American Muslims. They favor a broader investigation into homegrown terrorism, taking into account the threat of white supremacists, antiabortion activists, and other groups from which violent radicals have emerged.
Committee member Sheila Jackson Lee (Democrat-Texas) launched a tirade on King's probe, calling the proceedings an "outrage" that sought to "demonize and castigate a whole broad base of human beings."
The chairman's top Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson (Mississippi), said the hearing had the potential to "stoke a climate of fear and distrust" toward American Muslims and might also play into the hands of terrorists.
"The U.S. is accused [by Al-Qaeda] of engaging in a modern-day crusade against Islam. We cannot give this lie a place to rest," he said. "I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing's focus on the American Muslim community would be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers."
King, however, backed by other Republicans on the committee, maintained that the inquiry is "the logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings which the Obama administration has been making in recent months."
"Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward and they will," King said. "To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee -- to protect America from a terrorist attack."
He called on Muslim Americans to do more to combat Islamic radicalization.
The New York lawmaker, who has been accused of organizing a witch-hunt and employing McCarthy-like tactics, has had to increase his own security protection in the months leading up to today's hearing. At his request, police today secured the hearing room, the surrounding areas, and King's office.
Muslim American groups criticize King for overestimating the level of radicalization in their communities -- he has stated that as many as 85 percent of U.S. imams may be extremists -- and for alleging that Muslims do not adequately cooperate with law enforcement.
At today's hearing, King displayed a poster made by a chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which read: "Build a wall of resistance. Don't talk to the FBI." The advocacy group, which has been outspoken in opposing King's probe, has been linked by the U.S. Justice Department to a terror-financing case.
Today's hearing reached its emotional peak when Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison testified. In 2006 Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress. He told the committee that acts of terror by individuals do not indict whole communities.
Ellison broke down in tears as he recounted the story of a Muslim medical technician who died when the World Trade Center collapsed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, after rushing to the scene to help.
"Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed," Ellison said. "Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American, who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion."
'Hiding Behind Moderate Muslims'
Others who testified, however, gave personal accounts of Muslims who had become radicalized, and said their experiences justified the hearing.
Melvin Bledsoe told lawmakers how radical imams in his home state set his son on a path to terrorism and led him to move to Yemen.
U.S. officials say Bledsoe's son, Carlos, has admitted to killing a U.S. soldier outside an army recruiting station in Arkansas.
One committee member asked Bledsoe whether the U.S. imams that allegedly helped radicalize Carlos knew what they had done.
"Sure, they know. They're waiting around to do it again to someone else's child," Bledsoe said. "That's why I'm here today, hoping that the American people are listening. I hope you hear me. I hope you learn something from this. I don't think that any other child or any other parent in America should have to go through what I'm facing today."
But Bledshoe, who wore a large cross around his neck, recognized that it was only a subset of American Muslims who were the subject of the hearing. "We're not talking about all Muslims. We're talking about the ones who are hiding behind the moderate Muslims -- and they're the ones who are a threat to America."
written by Richard Solash