By Jordy Yager - 03/10/11 06:53 PM EST
Republicans pushed back on Democratic objections Thursday at a controversial hearing on whether American Muslims should be investigated for radicalized tendencies.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Pete King (R-N.Y.), defended his decision to hold the hearing, saying his panel “could not live in denial.”
“I am well-aware that the announcement of these hearings has generated considerable controversy and opposition,” King said at the hearing.
But Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on King's committee, said Thursday he was concerned the hearing could be used to further radicalize people to attack the U.S. and that it unfairly singled out Muslim Americans.
“The U.S. is accused of engaging in a modern-day crusade against Islam,” said Thompson in his opening remarks. “We cannot give this lie a place to rest.
“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing’s focus on the American Muslim community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers.”
In preparation for the hearing, bomb-sniffing dogs swept the outside of the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday morning.
Several demonstrators stood silently outside the building with signs reading, “Today I am a Muslim too” and “Pluralism or perish.”
More than 100 people filled the cramped hearing room on Cannon’s third floor. The audience was largely quiet, save for a few outbursts of applause, and a demonstrator from Code Pink who sat silently throughout.
The atmosphere was more tense than normal as U.S. Capitol Police officers stood posted near the hearing room. One officer at a screening entrance to Cannon told a man to remove his trench coat. When he turned his back to the police officer and went to unbutton it, she said, "Turn toward me, sir!" He complied.
In the days leading up to the hearing, King received threatening phone calls, pleas from more than 60 of his House colleagues and denunciations from civil liberty and religious groups, all trying to persuade him to cancel Thursday’s hearing.
Instead, members pushed King to broaden the scope of the hearing, titled “The extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community's response,” to encompass extremist environmental and neo-Nazi groups.
King said he is fulfilling his congressional duty and probing one of the most serious threats to national security.
“There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen,” said King. “Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation.”
King’s critics argue that the hearing unfairly targets Muslim Americans and will likely widen the divide between them and law enforcement.
A group of 56 Democratic lawmakers wrote to King on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to get him to call the hearing off. They said “the stated narrow scope and underlying premises of these hearings unfairly stigmatizes and alienates Muslim Americans.”
In a separate letter Wednesday evening, nine other Democratic lawmakers also pushed King to cancel the proceeding. They pointed to the shooting in January of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, neither of which has been linked to Islamic extremism, as evidence that other extremists deserve scrutiny.
Thompson last month asked King to broaden the scope of the hearing to encompass other extremists. King said he “will not allow political correctness to obscure a real and dangerous threat to the safety and security of the citizens of the United States.”
The hearing has sparked a furor in the media and among Islamic and civil-liberty groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which — along with 40 other groups — maintained in a letter Tuesday that the “committee can carry out its important function in a wide variety of ways without trampling on the constitutional rights of American Muslims.”
King announced plans for the hearing in December and has never wavered since. He said he has received threatening phone calls, some from overseas. He’s receiving increased protection and authorities are investigating the matter, he said.
In defending the hearing, King said he doesn’t want to feel guilty for not going forward in case another attack, like that of Sept. 11, 2001, takes place. Instead, he has blamed the mainstream media for inciting the public over an issue he says is vital to the national security — and which has not been adequately addressed so far.
“What are they afraid of? What are they hiding from? Why are they attacking me in such a rabid way?” King told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this week. “I can take the hits, that doesn’t bother me at all.
“I don’t ever want it on my conscience that if another attack comes, I wake up the next morning and say, ‘I backed down to political correctness, I backed down to The Washington Post, or the left-wing New York Times, because I was afraid of political retribution.’ I’m going to do what I have to do, and I’m going to do it.”
But some in the intelligence community are concerned that the hearing — which is aimed at investigating recruitment tactics — could be used by ideological extremists as a recruitment tool.
“If the Islamic community feels that they’re being targeted, it could fuel the fire of people who are recruiting [and] saying, ‘This is discrimination, this is why we want you to join our side, this is why we want you to attack,’ ” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “And unfortunately, they could use the religion to get to the endgame of an attack.”
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper voiced similar concerns in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month, saying terrorist recruiters could attempt to exploit “anti-Islamic incidents, legislation and activities, such as threat of Koran burning and restrictions on Muslim attire.”
King told The Hill he was somewhat surprised by the public outcry; the Senate Homeland Security panel has held multiple hearings of the same nature in recent years, with little or no opposition, he said.
Hearings before the Senate panel have included titles such as: “Violent Islamist Extremism: Al-Shabab Recruitment in America,” “The Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It” and “Violent Islamist Extremism: Government Efforts to Defeat It.”
But unlike King’s hearing, the Senate panel’s hearings have always included either experts or government officials. The first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), is scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing, as is Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).
Also scheduled to appear are Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a group that argues for the separation of mosque and state; Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, which focuses heavily on youth in Minneapolis, where some young people have reportedly been recruited overseas to the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab; L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca; and Melvin Bledsoe, the father of a man who claims to be a part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and stands accused of killing a man at an Arkansas military recruiting center.
For all of the opposition to the hearing, King does have his supporters. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it essential to understanding the evolving domestic terrorist threat against the U.S.
“That’s where the war is going,” Graham told The Hill. “The more we know about what’s out there and how we can prevent it, the better off we are. No one’s suggesting putting anyone in jail, but Peter is suggesting that we try to find out what is being used out there by our enemies directed toward young Americans. I think that’s a good thing to inquire into.”
The White House, sensing the damage the hearing could do to relations with the Muslim-American community, sent President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, to address the All Dulles Area Muslim Society on Sunday in Northern Virginia.
“Our challenge, and the goal that President Obama has insisted that we also focus on, is on the front end [of] preventing al Qaeda from recruiting and radicalizing people in America in the first place,” McDonough said. “And we know this isn’t the job of government alone. It has to be a partnership with you.”
This story was initially posted at 6:35 a.m. and most recently updated at 1:53 p.m.