Rep. Peter King’s Muslim hearing: Plenty of drama, less substance

March 10, 2011

One half of the Muslim contingent in Congress paused, his voice high and breaking. He tugged at his glasses. He held up a finger and gathered himself.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in the House, was trying to tell a story about a Muslim paramedic who died responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Mr. Hamdani bravely sacrificed his life,” Ellison said, and his voice cracked again, “ . . . to try to help others on 9/11.”

On Thursday, Ellison was an unusual witness in his own chamber, testifying about his religion in a committee hearing that examined radicalization among American Muslims. Eventually, Ellison gave up trying to compose himself and told the rest of the story in the quavering pitch of a man about to cry.

Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American,” Ellison said, “who gave his life for other Americans.”

Ellison’s testimony was the emotional peak of a dramatic, long-awaited hearing, in which Congress was in the spotlight as much as Islam. During more than four hours of testimony, there were other moments of touching depth: Two men told personal stories of seeing loved ones seduced by Islamic extremism.

Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American from Minnesota, described how a nephew turned radical and left to fight with an Islamic militia in Somalia. He said religious leaders had discouraged him from going to the authorities, warning that “you will have eternal fire and hell” for betraying Islam.

But, this being Capitol Hill, there also were moments of pure theater and genuine acrimony. A freshman Republican asked the Los Angeles County sheriff if he had been hoodwinked into trusting a Muslim advocacy group that some regard with suspicion. And Democrats used much of the hearing to angrily bash the idea of holding a hearing at all.

“It has already been classified as a way to demonize and castigate a whole broad base of human beings,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). She waved a copy of the Constitution and said the hearing might be a violation of laws prohibiting religious discrimination: “This hearing today is playing right now into al-Qaeda, around the world.”

The hearing was called by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Congress has previously examined the problem of homegrown radicals, but this time was different.

The hearing came after a series of high-profile incidents linked to American Muslims, including a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009 and an attempted bombing in Times Square last year. And it came at a time when conservatives have been bolder about attacks on Islam and Muslims generally — not just the religion’s extremists.

In this environment, King’s committee set out to study “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”

King did not repeat some of his most controversial statements about Muslims, including an allegation that the vast majority of U.S. mosques are run by radicals. But in his opening statement, he said al-Qaeda had sought to recruit Americans for terrorist attacks and cited a public opinion poll that showed support for suicide bombings among a small fraction of Muslim men.

“The overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are outstanding Americans,” King said. “But there are realities we cannot ignore.”

Seven witnesses

Even so, the hearing raised more questions than it answered. The seven witnesses included no leaders of large Muslim groups and no national law enforcement officials.

Instead, the committee heard narrow but powerful stories, like that of Melvin Bledsoe.

Bledsoe, with thick-rimmed glasses and a Memphis drawl, described his son Carlos as staffers put photos of him on a stand. One showed a sweetly smiling young boy in a red basketball uniform. Another showed a young man in a tuxedo. Then Bledsoe described his son’s conversion to radical Islam in college: He took down a photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He released a dog into the woods, he said, because Islam regards the animals as unclean.

There were no pictures from this phase of his son’s life, when he took the name Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad. Bledsoe’s son eventually traveled to Yemen and then returned to the United States and allegedly opened fire on a military recruiting station in Arkansas. A soldier died in the attack.

Radical extremism “is a big elephant in the room, ” Bledsoe said. “Our society continues not to see it.”

Bihi then told the story of his nephew and of Bihi’s difficulties getting mosque leaders to help track him down. During questions from Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Bihi said he had been told that going to the authorities would mean winding up in prison at Guantanamo Bay, or worse.

“If you do that, you’re going to be responsible for the eradication of all mosques and Islamic society in North America,” Bihi said he was told.

“Would you call that intimidation?” Lungren responded.

“Intimidation in its purest form,” Bihi said.

Potential turning point

Beforehand, the hearing had been seen as a potential turning point in the political conversation about Islam. What signals would King and other send about the way Americans should talk about the religion and its American adherents?

The answer was a muddle. King and others heaped praise on Muslims as a whole, saying that the vast majority are patriotic and law-abiding.

But many Muslim institutions came in for criticism. A particular target was the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the country’s largest Muslim advocacy groups. After Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca mentioned his dealings with the group, Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) challenged him.

“You’re dealing with a terrorist organization,” said Cravaack, a former Navy and airline pilot. He cited what he said was evidence to that effect from the FBI. “They might be using you, sir.”

Baca, who praised the cooperation of California Muslim groups, said he had seen no evidence that CAIR was a terrorist group.

“If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forth and charge them in court,” Baca said, triggering something like a group gasp in the packed hearing room. “We don’t play around with criminals in my world. If CAIR is an organization that’s a, quote, ‘criminal organization,’ prosecute them.”

After the hearing, Ellison said his breakdown had been uncharacteristic: He could not remember another such emotional moment in public. But he had met Hamdani’s mother just before his testimony, he said. He then became emotional thinking about how, after Hamdani’s death, there were rumors that the paramedic had been involved in the attacks — instead of a victim of them.

“Something about meeting his mother caught me off guard,” Ellison said later. “Here’s an American guy, in every way. And, even in death, he still has to struggle to not be known as ‘just one of the Muslims.’ ”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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