Saying extremist elements of Islam are a real threat that need to be confronted, House Republican leaders on Tuesday defended the Homeland Security Committee chairman’s decision to begin hearings this week to investigate the inroads radical Muslims have made in America.
But Democrats, as well as religious and civil rights groups say committee Chairman Peter T. King is singling out the Muslim community and could stoke anti-Islamic sentiment nationwide while providing another recruiting tool for extremists worldwide.
Mr. King, a New York Republican who saw more than 100 of his constituents perish in the Sept. 11 attacks, said his goal is to explore radicalization in the American Muslim community. The first hearing, scheduled for Thursday, will feature testimony from relatives of radicalized Muslim Americans who’ve engaged in terrorism, and Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is the sole Muslim in Congress.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the backlash against Mr. King’s effort is unwarranted and that the purpose of the hearing is to “assess how we can better work with the Muslim community in America to stop the spread of radical Islam.”
“It is pretty obvious where the problems have been in terms of terrorist activity,” the Virginia Republican said, noting the apparent ties between the suspect in the terrorist attack at Fort Hood and radical Islam. “There is no question that it has been encouraged by the radicalization of folks coming out of Central Asia and the Middle East and [they] have used this as a reason to perpetrate terrorist acts. It is a fairly well accepted notion at this point and that’s where Chairman King is going.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, fired back a few hours later, saying he is “deeply concerned about these hearings, which demonize law-abiding American Muslims who make important contributions to our society, as I would be about congressional hearings to investigate Catholics, Jews or people of any other faith based solely on their religion.”
Asked about Mr. Reid’s comments, Peter Gadiel, president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, said, “I think the difference is so far as anybody is aware, Jews and Catholics are not encouraging organized terrorism.”
“I have not heard of Southern Methodist conspiracies to blow up buildings or kill soldiers on military bases,” Mr. Gadiel said. “To the contrary, we know there is something called violent jihad and that is not something connected with Southern Methodists, that is connected with Muslims.”
The hearings come about six months before the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have sparked a vigorous debate across the political spectrum, with some critics likening Mr. King’s hearings to former Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his efforts to expose communists in the 1950s.
But Mr. King said his opponents are “tied up in political correctness.” He said he has no plans of backing down and will do whatever is in his power to prevent another terrorist attack.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, applauded the effort, calling it an important step forward in safeguarding the country against the rising tide of homegrown terrorism.
“Without question, there’s a troubling factual pattern of American Muslims becoming radicalized and focusing on creating havoc here on U.S. soil,” Mr. Sekulow said. “This hearing is designed to get to the bottom of what’s taking place in our nation — how al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are recruiting and manipulating American Muslims to attack the U.S. This hearing isn’t about profiling — it’s about protecting our homeland.”
But J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the hearing “will send a further message that Muslims present a greater threat of terrorism than other religions.”
“It would imply that the potential for terrorism from outside of Islam is not significant enough to merit a hearing,” Mr. Walker said.