“These are not Muslim-bashing hearings,” Abdirizak Bihi, the uncle of a radicalized Muslim teenager, said to reporters immediately after testifying at this morning’s House Homeland Security Committee hearing. But according to some Democrats, the hearing was an act of discrimination against Muslims and a danger to national security and civil rights.
Committee chair Peter King, a Republican from New York who has come under intense criticism for holding the hearing, played defense in his opening statement: “There is no equivalency of the threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, or other isolated madmen.”
But that didn’t stop the committee’s ranking member, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), from insisting that the hearing was too narrow in scope. “I urge the Chairman to hold a hearing examining the homeland security threat posed by anti-government and white supremacist groups,” Thompson said, as though he hadn't even heard King's remarks just prior to his, in his opening remarks.
Other Democrats used their own introductory remarks to take shots at the hearing’s premise.
“The narrow scope of this hearing is discriminatory,” said California congresswoman Laura Richardson when it was her turn to speak.
“We are seeing a very skewed discussion,” Californian congresswoman Jackie Speier said when it was her turn to join the discussion. “We should also be investigating the Army of God and their website, in which they openly praise Christian terrorists, as part of an effort to look at homegrown terrorism in this country.”
Some members of the committee argued that the hearing itself was a national security risk. “I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing … will be used to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers,” said Thompson.
“This hearing today is playing into al Qaeda right now around the world,” Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said, seconding Thompson's remarks. “It is diminishing soldiers along the front lines that are Muslim. And it is going the same route as Arizona and other states.”
Despite what King later called the “mindless hysteria” surrounding the hearing, most of the four hours featured measured testimony about the threat from radicalized American Muslims.
Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American Muslim whose teenage nephew was among 20 Muslim youths recruited by the terrorist organization al Shabaab, spoke about how his nephew was radicalized and later killed in Somalia. He was joined by Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim and the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and Melvin Bledsoe, the father of the radical Muslim convert who shot two American soldiers at a recruiting office in Little Rock.
All three testified that American Muslims, particularly young people, are at a great risk for being influenced by radical Islamist ideology. Jasser spoke about “political Islam,” which he distinguished from the spiritual Islam to which he and the large majority of American Muslims subscribe. It is his belief that the problem of radicalization is a Muslim problem that his community must address directly.
“We’re failing. We are not addressing this,” Jasser said. “We are soaking up the bandwidth…with victimization.”
“A lot of people are in denial that we have a problem in America about radicalization,” Bledsoe agreed.
As well as these three Republican-selected witnesses, the Democrats called Los Angeles county sheriff Lee Baca. Baca testified that he has cooperated well with the Muslim community in Los Angeles on investigations, and he expressed concern that hearings such as this one would lead more American Muslims to distrust law enforcement instead of working with them.
For his part, King was bullish on the success of the hearing, which he says was the first in a series.
The hearing's first panel featured three sitting congressmen as witnesses: Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).
Dingell began by acknowledging that the hearing “has great potential” but warned against “blotting” the name of the Muslim community “en masse.”
Ellison, one of two Muslims serving in Congress, was much more direct in his criticism. “This committee’s approach…I believe is contrary to the best American values,” he said. "Our responsibility is to do no harm." Ellison then choked up with tears as he recounted a story of a young Muslim American who died trying to save others’ lives on September 11, 2001.
The only congressional Republican witness, Wolf, used his remarks to talk about the hearing's subject. “In November 2009, five American Muslim teenagers in Fairfax County were arrested in Pakistan attempting to join militant Islamic organizations,” Wolf said, one of several cases he cited of radicalized Muslims living in his home state of Virginia.