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Hearings on American Muslims reveal a deep rift

Partisan split; testimony gets emotional

Rep. Peter King said he hoped the session would help do away with the ‘mindless hysteria’ of the media and his detractors. Rep. Peter King said he hoped the session would help do away with the ‘mindless hysteria’ of the media and his detractors.
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Laurie Goodstein
New York Times / March 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing addressing homegrown Islamic terrorism yesterday offered divergent portraits of Muslims in America: one as law-abiding people who are unfairly made targets, the other as a community ignoring radicalization among its own and failing to confront what one witness called “this cancer that’s within.’’

Attacked by critics as a revival of McCarthyism, and lauded by supporters as a courageous stand against political correctness, the hearing — four hours of sometimes emotional testimony — revealed a deep partisan split in lawmakers’ approach to terror investigations and their views on the role of mosques in America.

Republicans drilled down with questions about whether Muslims cooperate with law enforcement, and singled out a Washington-based advocacy group, the Council on American Islamic Relations, casting it as an ally of terrorists. Representative Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican and the Homeland Security Committee chairman who convened the session, declared it a “discredited group.’’

Democrats sought to put the spotlight on the lone law enforcement witness, Sheriff Leroy D. Baca of Los Angeles, who testified that Muslims do cooperate, and they cited a Duke University study that found that 40 percent of foiled domestic terror plots had been thwarted with the help of Muslims.

“A Muslim is on the panel! A Muslim has testified!’’ thundered Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, referring to two of the witnesses — a line that brought a chorus of supportive guffaws from those watching on television in an overflow hearing room. She went on: “And so I question, where are the uncooperative Muslims?’’

The hearing room was tiny and crowded, and the drama restrained: At the slightest hint of audience reaction, King warned that outbursts would not be tolerated.

But the hallways bustled with a sideshow of roaming television cameramen and onlookers: from women dressed in hijabs to a couple of retirees holding a sign that said “Respect All Religion — Live With Love.’’

Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is Muslim, wept as he recounted the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old volunteer medical technician who rushed to help when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 — and died in the building’s collapse. Ellison barely finished his testimony, breaking down as he described how, when Hamdani disappeared, his religion fueled suspicions that he was part of the plot — rumors put to rest by the discovery of his remains.

But two other witnesses — Melvin Bledsoe, a Memphis businessman, and Abdirizak Bihi of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis — offered their own compelling narratives of how their relatives embraced Islamic extremism.

“Our children are in danger,’’ Bledsoe warned, as he told lawmakers of how his son Carlos had converted to Islam in college and traveled to Yemen, where he was “trained and programmed’’ to kill. After returning to the United States, he opened fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., killing one soldier and wounding another. Bihi’s nephew was recruited to Somalia, where he died.

For King, who convened the hearings after months of planning — and amid intense criticism — the session offered a public forum, as well as a chance to defend himself against religious leaders, civil right advocates, and others who have been pressing him to broaden the scope of the effort.

He has repeatedly said he would not, and yesterday, he was defiant.

“I’m more convinced than ever that they were appropriate,’’ he told reporters afterward.

Among those detractors was Representative Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat who sharply criticized the Republicans’ star witness, M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix doctor who, as founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has been deeply critical of fellow Muslims.

It was Jasser who used the cancer analogy; in his testimony, he complained that too often, Muslim leaders counsel Muslims against speaking to law enforcement officials without a lawyer.

“The right to have an attorney present when speaking to law enforcement is a specific principle of American civil liberty,’’ Sanchez said sharply, adding, “So by what legal principle do you assert that any minority in America should waive that American principle?’’