Tears, fears at hearing on Muslims

Tempers flared and tears flowed Thursday at a tense hearing on the radicalization of the American Muslim community.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) rejected calls from nearly 100 Democratic members to cancel the highly controversial hearing as he carried out his attempt to explore whether the U.S. Muslim community is being radicalized.

King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the four-hour hearing was “successful” and announced plans to hold another in the next several months on the radicalization of Muslim Americans in the U.S. prison system.

“This was an extremely productive, worthwhile hearing,” King told reporters after it ended. “I am more convinced than ever that it was the appropriate hearing to hold. We broke down a wall of political correctness on an issue which has to be addressed.”

While members spent much of the hearing itself talking about whether it was proper to hold such a forum, lawmakers did launch a series of questions at four witnesses who have all dealt personally with the issue of Muslim radicalization. 

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, told lawmakers that no other parent should have to lose his child to radical Islamist extremists. 

But a Los Angeles County sheriff slammed the committee’s approach to the hearing, saying that Muslims in L.A. have been instrumental in helping law enforcement officials stop and prevent crime. 

“It is counterproductive to building trust when individuals or groups claim that Islam supports terrorism,” said Sheriff Lee Baca. “This plays directly into the terrorists’ propaganda that the West’s ‘war on terror’ is actually a ‘war against Islam.’ ”

With graphic pictures of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center hanging on the walls of the committee hearing room, a crowd of more than 100 filled up all of the panel’s public seats. Many of those attending wore traditional Muslim attire. Save for a few outbursts of applause, there were no major protests. 

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, broke into tears during the hearing as he spoke of a 23-year-old Muslim New York Police Department cadet and paramedic named Mohammed Salman Hamdani who was killed trying to save people from the crumbling World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. 

Ellison became visibly emotional when he began describing how people spread false rumors after his death that Hamdani had helped the terrorists attack the U.S. Ellison was barely able to finish his statement but said he was concerned that fear-based rumors and prejudice could arise from Thursday’s hearing as well.

King said he had received full backing from his leaders to address the issue. And the 10-term lawmaker said he never wavered from his plan to hold the hearing, even in the face of a stream of threatening phone calls, some from overseas. 

Democrats, however, were appalled at the nature of the hearing and the manner in which it was carried out, with 56 lawmakers writing King on Wednesday asking him to cancel it and broaden the scope to include white supremacist groups and environmental extremists. Shortly after the hearing began, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus all denounced it. 

In the days leading up to the hearing, some lawmakers expressed their concern that it could spark a backlash against the U.S. government and military by Muslims. 

“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,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, at the hearing. 

But King said afterward that “there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to worry about any impact, subliminal or otherwise.”

At the hearing’s outset, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member and the “dean” of the House, cautioned King that, if conducted irresponsibly, the hearing could resemble the anti-communist hearings held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s. But if conducted with respect for Muslims, Dingell said, the hearing could be helpful.

“I believe this hearing has a potential to create a continuation of the fear and hatred that came after 9/11,” Dingell said. “This hearing must not be permitted to recall the evils of McCarthyism and the divisiveness and ill will it created amongst our people.

“If this hearing is conducted carefully, fairly and with respect for all, especially including our Arab and Muslim Americans, good will come from it,” said Dingell, who hails from a region with one of the largest Arab-American populations. 

In a statement following the hearing, Dingell did not say whether he thought King successfully accomplished this goal.