CAPITOL HILL - A senior U.S. lawmaker held the fifth in a series of congressional hearings Wednesday on alleged radicalization within the American Muslim community. The House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security focused on the response from the U.S. Muslim community to the hearings, which have generated a great deal of controversy and media attention.
Committee Chairman Peter King opened the hearing by defending the basic premise of examining the extent of radicalization of America's Muslim community. The New York Republican said the issue is of serious concern to many senior national security officials in the Obama administration, and that the hearings should have garnered bipartisan support.
"Yet, from the moment I announced the hearings, I was attacked by politically correct special interests and their unthinking allies in the media led by The New York Times [newspaper]," he said. "More than 1,000 protesters came out in the rain to rally against me in Times Square [in New York City] the Sunday before the first hearing."
King's invited witnesses included several representatives from the U.S. Muslim community, including physician Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Dr. Jasser spoke out strongly in support of the hearings, saying it is crucial to differentiate Islam from the extremist political ideology of Islamism, which he says is trying to hijack his religion.
"Since your hearings began, so many Muslims told us that they were tired of having their identities stolen by two groups: one is the radicals that commit acts of terrorism, and the other are the grievance groups, whose denials, lawsuits and cries of bigotry have actually caused more negativity toward Islam and Muslims than bridge-building," he said.
Other witnesses from the nation's Muslim community agreed, saying that an open discussion of the problem of radicalization does not infringe on their civil liberties or imply that they believe that all Muslim Americans are violent extremists. All of the witnesses and lawmakers at the hearing agreed that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Americans are peaceful and law-abiding citizens.
But some Democratic lawmakers said they believe the focus of the hearings should be broader, and that they worried about the perceptions created by focusing on a particular religious group.
"I hope that the hearings did not perpetuate the notion that the United States is at war with Islam," said ranking Democratic committee member Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. "Such a notion would only help the recruitment efforts of al-Qaida and similar groups."
Committee Democrats invited Faiza Patel to testify before the panel. Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said it is wrong to focus on the U.S. Muslim community because they have been very cooperative with law enforcement officials in counterterrorism efforts.
"Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that vast majorities of American Muslims have consistently held the view that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are never justified," Patel said.
Previous committee hearings addressed issues such as the threat of radicalization of American Muslims in U.S. prisons, recruitment by the al-Shabab extremist group and the threat posed to U.S. military communities. Chairman Peter King did not say whether he plans to hold more hearings.