WASHINGTON -- Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, broke into tears Thursday during a hearing investigating possible radicalization of Muslim-Americans, telling the House Homeland Security Committee the inquiry was “the very heart of scapegoating.”
“We’ve seen the consequences of anti-Muslim hate,” Ellison testified. “The best defense against extreme ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement. … I fear these hearings may undermine our efforts in this direction.”
Ellison became emotional while recounting the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old Muslim-American firefighter who died while saving others during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hamdani, whose mother was in the audience, was castigated for his religion after his death, with some wondering whether he had been allied with the attackers, Ellison said.
“He should not be remembered as a Muslim, but as an American who gave everything for his country,” Ellison said.
The hearings, led by committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), have already yielded a storm of controversy, with critics questioning whether Congress should single out a particular minority group as a possible threat to national security.
King defended the hearings in his opening remarks Thursday, saying they fall in line with the Obama administration’s stated concerns over the radicalization of Muslim-Americans by extremists abroad.
“I remained convinced that these hearings must go forward, and they will,” he 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 community: to protect America from a terrorist attack.”
King said to focus on extremism in general would “dilute” the hearings, listing a number of statements by Obama administration officials on attempts by foreign terrorist groups to radicalize American Muslims.
“There is no equivalency between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen,” he said. “Only al Qaeda and its Islamists affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation."
But a number of rights groups and Democratic members of Congress have spoken out against the focus of the hearings, arguing that non-Muslims have perpetrated a number of terrorist crimes in the United States.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) told the committee he thinks the hearing could promote hate and violence against Muslim-Americans. He said he hung a picture of Joe McCarthy, who led infamous hearings in the 1950s to root out Communists, in his office to remind himself of what the hearing should avoid.
One controversial element of the hearing was King’s selection of witnesses, which bypassed moderate Muslim groups in favor of a Muslim activist who warns of creeping extremism and family members of radicalized youth.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor from Arizona who regularly appears on Fox News and has been called “Glenn Beck’s favorite Muslim,” testified that the Muslim community had focused too much on victimization rather than discouraging radical members. He said the Muslim community had allowed some individuals, such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, to become radicalized.
“Pathology creeps up over time and just like alcoholism, there are enablers, and the enablers in our community are what is making the problem get worse,” Jasser said.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos Bledsoe, converted to Islam at the age of 19, testified that his son became radicalized by Muslims before moving to Yemen. When he returned to the United States, Carlos Bledsoe shot two U.S. Army privates outside a recruiting center, killing one. He is now in prison.
Melvin Bledsoe said the same could happen to other U.S. youth if radical Islam continues unchecked.
“It seems to me that Americans are sitting around doing nothing about Muslim extremists. It is a big elephant in the room,” he said. “Mr. King called it political correctness, you could call it political fear, but it is stepping down for a population ... even if some segment of that population wants to violate everything we stand for.”
During the hearing's question-and-answer portion, Democrats criticized King for even holding it, with a few members denouncing statements that there are “too many mosques” in the United States.
There was an awkward moment when Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) defended the committee, claiming that no one had said there were too many mosques in the country. He was interrupted by King, who acknowledged that he had made such a statement.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) lashed out at King during her question period, calling the hearing itself “an outrage.”
“Muslims are here cooperating,” Lee said. “They are here doing what this hearing is saying they do not do. I just question, where are the uncooperative Muslims?”