Tense Hearing Probes Muslim Extremism In U.S.

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Members of the House Homeland Security committee held a hearing on the radicalization of Muslims in America on Thursday, and quarreled among themselves about the value of the hearing. Some committee members said it could help prevent terror attacks. Other members saw it as disparaging Muslims.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

A much anticipated Congressional hearing on the radicalization of Muslims in America produced a lot of partisan sparks yesterday, but not a lot of new information. Republican Congressman Peter King of New York called the hearing. He chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. NPR's Brian Naylor reports there was a good deal of debate among panel members over whether the hearing should have occurred in the first place.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The hearing room was packed with dozens of reporters and photographers and members of the public. Security was tight, in part because of the nature of the issues being discussed, and in part because of reported threats against committee chairman King's life.

In his opening remarks, King defended his decision to call the first of what he says will be a series of hearings into Muslim radicalization in the U.S.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward. And they will. To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee, to protect America from a terrorist attack.

NAYLOR: As if to underscore that point, the committee room was lined with photographs of the fiery World Trade Center and other images of the nation's worst terrorist attack nearly 10 years ago. One of the first witnesses to testify was the first Muslim elected to Congress, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison. Ellison opposed the hearings and couldn't hold back his tears as he spoke about a Muslim American, a young EMT who died in the Twin Towers.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): Muhammed Selmid Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

NAYLOR: Democrats on the panel criticized King for limiting the hearings to Islamic radicalization and not looking at other homegrown terrorist threats, such as from white supremacist groups. To focus only on Muslims, said Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, would backfire.

Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Democrat, Texas): This hearing today is playing into al-Qaida right now around the world. It is diminishing soldiers that are on the front lines that are Muslims. Those who lost their lives.

NAYLOR: Among the witnesses testifying was Melvin Bledsoe, who owns a Memphis tour agency. Bledsoe told the panel of his son Carlos, who he said went away to college and came back changed, a convert to Islam. Bledsoe said his son took down from his bedroom wall a picture of the Reverend Martin Luther King he once cherished.

Mr. MELVIN BLEDSOE: We got very concerned while(ph) Carlos was growing up with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s picture on the wall, hung on his bedroom wall - now he's treating that picture as if Dr. King was nobody to him.

NAYLOR: Bledsoe's son changed his name and went to Yemen. When he came back, he allegedly opened fire on a military recruiting station in Arkansas, killing a U.S. soldier. Bledsoe said he was telling his story so that America will, in his words, do something about this problem.

Several Republicans on the committee singled out the controversial activist group CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack suggested one of the witnesses at the hearing, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, had been duped by the group.

Representative CHIP CRAVAACK (Republican, Minnesota): Basically you're dealing with a terrorist organization. And I'm trying to get you to try to understand that they might be using you, sir, to implement their goals.

Sheriff LEE BACA (Los Angeles County Sherriff's Department): Well, thank you for asking me that question, but it sounds more like a possible accusation of me being misused by an organization.

NAYLOR: Baca testified he had often worked with Muslims in Southern California and they were cooperative, despite Chairman King's assertions the Muslim community had been doing too little to fight terrorism in the U.S.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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