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

Keith Ellison (D - Minn.) is the first Muslim-American elected to Congress and one of two Muslim-Americans currently serving. Toward the end of his testimony, Ellison grows visibly emotional when he describes the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old Muslim-American paramedic and police cadet from New York City.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:00 AM

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.

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