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.
No one is disputing that terrorists with professed religious motivations pose a violent threat. But as Ellison made plain in his testimony, extremists “are individuals, not a community.” And other Democrats questioned why the Committee was singling out Muslims for an investigation. Representative Al Green, who is African-American and a preacher’s son, gave an impassioned speech about the Christian white supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan. Representative Jackie Speier, who noted her devout Roman Catholic faith, wondered why the committee wasn’t investigating the Army of God, an extremist Christian antiabortion group that openly condones violence and was admired by Scott Roeder, who is serving a life sentence for murdering Dr. George Tiller in church.
King portrays the Muslim experience in America as one darkened by suspicion and distrust. In King’s world, Muslims refuse to turn incidents of terror recruitment into law enforcement, and can’t be trusted to be good citizens. He conveniently ignores the fact that seven out of the last ten Al Qaeda plots against US interests have been foiled by tips from Muslim Americans.
MPAC’s Tarin says his group has worked extensively to build bridges between Muslims and local and federal law enforcement. That sometimes can be difficult, he said, with immigrants from countries with authoritarian regimes because “if they had a brush with law enforcement, it probably wasn’t a good experience.” And while the tenor of King’s hearings creates the impression that immigrants from authoritarian regimes want to bring the same authoritarianism to America, Tarin emphasized, “they came to escape that.” As a result, “our whole approach has been to really put forth the framework where there is communication and relationships, especially between the FBI and the Muslim-American community.”
Through its I Am Change program, MPAC raises civic awareness about how government and law enforcement works. “If the component of trust exists,” said Tarin, “then you’ll get communities who feel like they can come and talk.” While Dan Lundgren, a California Republican, asserted that the family of Abdirizak Bihi (one of King’s witnesses), whose nephew was lured into extremism, was a “target of intimidation to stop you from going to law enforcement,” Tarin noted that such lack of cooperation is “unusual.”
Sheriff Lee Baca of Los Angeles County, the Democrats’ witness who attested to the cooperation of the local Muslim community in his law enforcement efforts, deftly frustrated Republicans’ McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics. When Representative Chip Cravaack, a Minnesota Republican, suggested that by cooperating with the Council on American Islamic Relations, “you’re dealing with a terrorist organization, and I’m trying to get you to understand that they might be using you, sir, to implement their goals,” Baca refused to be baited, shooting back that Cravaack’s question “seems more like a possible accusation.”
For his part, Jasser attempted to portray the Muslim community as afraid of the hearings. “We’re not intellectually equipped from a religious standpoint,” he said, because Muslims don’t understand their faith. “He’s got an inferiority complex,” Tarin smirked.
“Unfortunately no American Muslim was used [as a witness in the hearing] who really knows the community,” said Imam Mohamed Hag Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The hearings are being framed, he added, “to say, the American Muslim community is not doing enough, and we’re trying to prove they’re not doing enough with a pre-determined outcome…they’ve come to a conclusion first.”
Both Democrats and members of the Shoulder-to-Shoulder group were critical of the Republicans’ failure to call a single scholarly expert on Islam, relying instead on Jasser, a physician, and Bihi. And they were similarly critical of Jasser’s baseless assertion that the Muslim community wasn’t “intellectually equipped.”
“That is such an arrogant statement,” scoffed Imam Magid, adding, “How is that hearing going to make us intellectually equipped?”