The top Republican and Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee tangled on Thursday over whether an investigation into violent extremism in the United States should be expanded to include more groups than just U.S. Muslims. The first Muslim member of Congress, testifying before the panel, broke down in tears discussing the persecution of Muslims.
(PICTURES: Who's Who on the Panel)
The committee’s fiery chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., kicked off the first in a series of hearings that have prompted controversy and in some cases outrage at his intent to investigate extremism within the U.S. Muslim community.
“This committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to al-Qaida,” King said. “There is no equivalency of threat between al-Qaida and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, or other isolated madmen.”
“Today, we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalization is part of al-Qaida’s strategy to continue attacking the United States," King added. “Al-Qaida is actively targeting the American Muslim community for recruitment.”
The divisive start of the session was not unexpected. Controversy has been swirling for a week as King prepared to go forward with the hearings that some have characterized as a "witch hunt." But according to King, a senior Obama administration official told him to go forward with the hearings. He said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, said the administration “welcomes congressional involvement” in the issue.
Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., fired back, criticizing the focus of the hearing.
“I urge you, Mr. Chairman, to hold a hearing examining the homeland security threat posed by anti-government and white supremacist groups,” Thompson said. “A narrow focus that excludes known threats lacks clarity and may be myopic.”
Thompson noted that the FBI on Wednesday arrested an individual for attempting to detonate a bomb outside a recent Martin Luther King Day parade in Spokane, Wash. Thompson said the suspect is believed to be affiliated with white supremacists.
“I have heard concerns that today’s hearings will stoke a climate of fear and distrust in the Muslim community,” Thompson added. “It may also increase fear and distrust of the Muslim community. For law enforcement officials, outreach and cooperation may become more difficult.”
It was the emotional testimony of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called as a witness at the hearing, that provided the most dramatic evidence of the depth of feeling on both sides of the question. Ellison argued that King’s investigation could increase suspicion of the U.S. Muslim community “and ultimately make us all less safe.”
Ellison broke down in tears when talking about New York City police cadet Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Muslim who died in responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite Hamdani's heroic efforts, Ellison said, some people thought he was involved in carrying out the attacks because he was a Muslim who was seen at Ground Zero.