When Representative Keith Ellison, one of just two Muslim members of Congress, broke down during Representative Peter King’s hearing on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response,” you could feel the entire room holding its breath. “He’s crying,” whispered Haris Tarin, director of the Washington, DC, office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), who was sitting next to me. Ellison began sobbing as he recounted the heroism and patriotism of Muhammad Salman Hamdani, a first responder and a Muslim, who died on 9/11 attempting to rescue his fellow Americans in the World Trade Center.
If King felt moved to weep or mourn or possibly salute, he neither said anything about it nor showed any reaction to his colleague. King has no problem with exploiting the emotional potency of 9/11; in fact the hearing room had been adorned with framed photographs, including a poster-sized photograph of the Twin Towers in flames. But King wasn’t going to let the heroism of a Muslim in the face of terrorism get in the way of a good witch hunt. He’s on a mission to establish that Muslims aren’t patriotic, that they don’t engage with law enforcement and that Muslim “radicalization” poses a risk to the homeland and our way of life.
Before his testimony, Ellison made his presence felt in the hearing room, greeting members of the public, grinning and saying “shalom” to Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Schneier is a member of the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Steering Committee, an interfaith group that has condemned the hearings, accusing King of “bearing false witness” against America’s Muslims by asserting “that Muslims as a broad group are not deeply devoted to America’s safety and the peaceful interaction of its entire citizenry.”
King’s witnesses in the first of what the House Homeland Security Committee chair promises to be a series of hearings were clearly intended to erase the Ellison exemplar of the affable, patriotic, assimilated Muslim American. They included Zuhdi Jasser, the Arizona doctor who worried to the Committee that “we’ve surrendered the Constitution to the jihadists,” and the relatives of two American Muslims—one a Somali immigrant, the other an African-American convert to Islam—who were recruited into extremism. But an investigation by the Tennessean undermines the testimony of one of the witnesses, Melvin Bledsoe, the father of Abdul Hakim Muhammad (born Carlos Bledsoe), who claimed that his “happy-go-lucky” son was turned violent by the “brainwashing” of “radical Islam.” Public records show that Muhammad, who has admitted to a shooting at an Army recruiting station in 2009, had previous brushes with the law dating back to 2004, including firearms possession and gang membership.
King, who has repeatedly said without basis that 80 percent of American mosques are “radicalized,” is defensive when accused of smearing an entire religion with a broad brush. So to avoid being blamed for portraying all Muslims as terrorists, he sought in this hearing to paint a picture of Muslims as clueless victims, powerless in the face of violent, anti-American radicals who lure them into totalitarian plots against America and, in the worst case scenario, acts of violence.