WASHINGTON Muslim Americans must do more to combat Islamic radicalization as al Qaeda targets them to help carry out terrorism plots, a lawmaker said on Thursday as he convened hearings critics said unfairly singled out Muslims.
Peter King, the chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee who convened hearings to examine Islamic radicalization, has accused the Muslim community of refusing to cooperate with law enforcement and charged that preaching in some U.S. mosques was leading to radicalization.
"To combat this threat, moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim community," King said. "Today, we must be fully aware that home-grown radicalization is part of al Qaeda's strategy to continue attacking the United States."
The hearings spotlight increasing concerns about the threat of home-grown terrorism and attempts by al Qaeda to recruit from mosques in the United States to carry out attacks in this country and abroad.
Some lawmakers said King's approach unfairly demonized a single religious group, tarnishing them in their communities and instilling a sense of fear that deters them from coming forward to report suspicious activity.
Democratic Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in the House, wept as he recounted how a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic died when he responded to the September 11 attacks in New York City and later was smeared because of his faith.
"Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was really with the attackers because he was a Muslim," he said.
He said the young man, Mohammed Salman Hamdani, should be recognized for giving "everything for his fellow Americans" rather than solely as a member of a religious group. Ellison tried to hide his tears behind his papers and quickly left the room after his remarks.
King, a New York congressman, denied accusations that the hearings were "radical or un-American" and said there was no comparison between the threat from al Qaeda and that from neo-Nazis, environmental extremists and "isolated madmen."
He pointed to Americans who went overseas where they joined militant groups, the attempt by a Saudi student caught in Texas as he was trying to build bombs and the failed attempt by a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen to detonate a car bomb in New York's bustling Times Square last year.
Melvin Bledsoe told the committee about his son Carlos who was radicalized at a mosque in Tennessee and in Yemen. His son later shot dead a U.S. soldier and wounded a second at a recruiting center in Arkansas in 2009.
"What happened to Carlos at those Nashville mosques isn't normal," he said. "I have other family members who are Muslims and they are modern, peaceful, law abiding people."
A Somali American from Minnesota told the committee about his nephew secretly traveling to Somalia to join and fight with the militant group al Shabaab. He said that U.S. mosque leaders warned his family against cooperating with law enforcement.
"The challenge is that the community is lacking strong and true leaders that translate the real voices of the average members of the community," Abdirizak Bihi said.
California Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, calling the hearing a "very skewed discussion," said the panel should have also spoken to witnesses from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and Justice Department.
Throughout the hearing, which was convened under tight security, Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether the focus on Muslim Americans was too narrow or was properly addressing the current threat picture.
The longest serving Democrat in the House, Representative John Dingell, whose state of Michigan has a large Muslim community, urged King to ensure that his investigation does not "blot the good name or the loyalty or raise questions about the decency of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans."
Republicans argued that the open efforts by al Qaeda and its affiliates to recruit within the Muslim community showed that they were on the right track.
"We are looking at a specific problem, and we're trying to deal with it," said Republican Representative Dan Lungren of California.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca praised cooperation by Muslims in his community and warned against focusing on a single constituency.
"This makes a false assumption that any particular religion or group is more prone to radicalization than others," he said.
(Editing by David Alexander and Jackie Frank)