Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman, gave emotional testimony Thursday to a House of Representatives committee hearing on radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community.
Tearfully describing the story of a Muslim-American first-responder paramedic who died on September 11, 2001, Ellison criticized New York Republican Rep. Peter King for leading the controversial hearings that have reignited a national debate over how to combat a spate of home grown terrorism.
"Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans," Ellison said, his voice breaking. "His life should not be defined as a member of an ethnic group or a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow citizens."
"This committee's approach to violent extremism is contrary to American values and threatens our security," Ellison said. The congressman tried to hide his tears behind his papers and quickly left the room after his remarks.
The senior Democrat in the House, Michigan Rep. John Dingell, urged King and the committee to ensure that their investigation would not "blot the good name or the loyalty or raise questions about the decency of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans."
King insisted the hearing was the logical response to Obama administration warnings over a very real threat.
"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," King said in his opening remarks.
Critics have compared the hearing to overly zealous investigations of communism in the 1950s that led to false accusations that destroyed careers.
"There is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings," King said Thursday.
He pointed to Americans who went overseas where they joined militant groups, the attempt by a Saudi student caught in Texas as he was trying to build bombs and the failed attempt by a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen to detonate a car bomb in New York's bustling Times Square last year.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos, is charged with killing an Army private at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., testified about his son's conversion to Islam and his isolation from his family.
"Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters," Bledsoe said. "He was manipulated and lied to."
The Obama administration has tried to frame the discussion around radicalization in general, without singling out Muslims. King said that is just political correctness, since al-Qaida is the main threat to the United States.
Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American from Minnesota, said his nephew, Burhan, turned radical and left for Somalia to fight with militants. In questions from Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., Bihi said he had been discouraged by mosque leaders from seeking answers about what became of his nephew and others who left for Somalia. The 18-year-old died in Somalia.
"If you do that, you're going to be responsible for the eradication of all mosques and Islamic society in North America," Bihi said, recounting what he was told. "You will have eternal fire and hell."
California Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, calling the hearing a "very skewed discussion," said the panel should have also spoken to witnesses from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took a veiled swipe at King on Wednesday, saying the focus by law enforcement was on individuals rather than an entire community because "we don't want to stigmatize, we don't want to alienate entire communities."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said, "We welcome congressional involvement in this issue."
"In the United States, we don't practice guilt by association," Carney added. "We believe Muslim-Americans are part of the solution."
Elsewhere at the Capitol, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also was scheduled to address the threat of homegrown terrorism Thursday. In his prepared remarks, Clapper says 2010 saw more plots involving homegrown Sunni Muslim extremists ideologically aligned with al-Qaida than in the previous year.
"Key to this trend has been the development of a U.S.-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence," Clapper's remarks said.