Pushing back against a firestorm of criticism, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said Thursday his hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in the U.S. shouldn't be viewed as an assault on any particular faith, but rather an effort to highlight a violent offshoot of Islam that continues to threaten the nation.
Amid charges of "Islamophobia," a few angry outbursts and tearful testimony from a lawmaker who shared the story of a young Muslim paramedic who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, Chairman Peter T. King said the hearing is the first in a series that will examine the inroads Islamic extremism has made among American Muslims.
He told the audience packed into the tiny hearing room that "we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalization is part of al Qaeda's strategy to continue attacking the United States."
"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," the New York Republican said, noting a recent Pew Poll that showed that 15 percent of Muslim-American men between the age of 18 and 29 could support suicide bombings. "This is the segment of the community al Qaeda is attempting to recruit."
Mr. King noted that a top White House official recently encouraged him to follow through with the hearing and said the president welcomes Congress' involvement in the issue — a point President Obama's spokesman verified later in the day.
Thursday's hearing took an emotional turn early on when Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and one of the two Muslims in Congress, broke down during his testimony, while sharing the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani — a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic who lost his life in the September 11 attacks.
Following the attacks, Mr. Ellison said, rumors swirled suggesting that Mr. Hamdani helped orchestrate the attack on the Twin Towers, and that "it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were fully exposed."
"Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans," Mr. Ellison said, choking up at the end of his testimony. "His life should not be defined as a member of an ethnic group or a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow citizens."
Emotions continued to run high during the more than four-hour hearing.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, warned "this hearing today is playing into al Qaeda right now around the world," and ignored the chairman as he banged the gavel and repeatedly alerted her that her five minutes to speak had expired.
"I'm overwhelmed by this hearing, and the lack of factual basis for it, and I don't think Muslims should be compared to Nazis, Klansmen and others," she said. "It is an outrage!"
Mr. King again pounded the gavel after Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican, was interrupted by Rep. Al Green. Mr. Green, a black Texas Democrat, argued that lawmakers should also be addressing the threats posed by the Ku Klux Klan.
The division between Democrats and Republicans reflect one of the thorniest debates to emerge in the years since September 11: How to prevent homegrown terror.
A Rasmussen Reports survey released Thursday highlighted the split. The poll showed 39 percent of likely U.S. voters think the federal government doesn't focus enough on the potential threat from domestic terrorism, while 38 percent said the antiterrorism focus is about right.
The verbal jousting between lawmakers felt like political theater at times, but few questioned the painful testimony of two men who told the committee about how relatives had been "brainwashed" by radical Islamic fundamentalism.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son Carlos is accused of killing one soldier and wounding another in a 2009 attack on a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., warned the panel that a lot of people are "still in denial that we have a problem of radicalization" and told the panel, "tomorrow it could be your son or your daughter."
"One thing for sure: It will happen again," said Mr. Bledsoe, of Memphis, Tenn., "We must stop these extremist invaders from raping the minds of American citizens."
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