WASHINGTON-About a year ago the Obama administration announced it would be removing the words "jihad" and "Islamic extremism" from the national security policy lexicon. At a House hearing last May, Attorney General Eric Holder refused to say that "radical Islam" was even one of many causes for attempted terror attacks like the Times Square bombing.
But a hearing Thursday centered almost entirely on the phrases "radical Islam" and "Islamic extremism." The new Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Pete King of New York, convened the controversial hearings on radicalization of American Muslims - hearings which have drawn condemnations, he noted, from everyone from "CAIR [the Council on American Islamic Relations] to Kim Kardashian to The New York Times."
"I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward and they will," King told the packed room, and another crowd watching in an overflow room. "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."
But the controversial hearing largely avoided controversy. All of the outside witnesses, even the one Democrats had called, supported the decision to hold the hearing, taking the wind out of critics' sails. Two of the three witnesses Republicans called were practicing Muslims. The Democratic witness, Los Angeles County Sheriff Baca, while urging respect for the Muslim community, refused to condemn the hearings even after Democratic lawmakers gave him repeated opportunities.
So Democrats on the committee used most of their allotted time to condemn the hearing. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslim lawmakers in Congress, wept as he spoke about a Muslim first responder who died on 9/11 and lodged that the hearing was "scapegoating" Muslims and "risks making our country less safe." The ranking Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said the hearings would be used "to generate a new generation of suicide bombers." He repeated his wish that the hearing expand to cover all types of extremists, like white supremacists and environmental extremists. Those aren't the central homeland security issue for the panel, noted Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif. "In panels about youth gang violence, we didn't talk about non-youth gang violence."
Witness Melvin Bledsoe of Memphis, Tenn., whose son Carlos converted to Islam, was radicalized in Yemen, and murdered an American soldier, said of the Democrats' critiques, "As you can see a lot of people are still in denial that we have a problem in America of radicalization...Our society continues not to see it." He said he hoped the nation would learn lessons from the process of radicalization his son went through.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who represents Dearborn, Mich., the largest Arab community in the United States, commended the decision to hold the hearing and said he hoped the public would understand that the goal was to "find wrongdoing and danger and risk" not attack the Muslim community. Each Republican lawmaker was cautious to say in their statements that the majority of members of the American Muslim community were law-abiding citizens, and the hearing was addressing a radical minority.
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the head of the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy who describes himself as a "conservative orthodox Muslim," testified that the United States is suffering from "polarization and paralysis" in dealing with radical Islam. "We can call everyone a bigot or an Islamophobe if we even talk about it, but we won't solve anything....we're so soaking up the bandwidth with victimization that we're not discussing the core problems."
Jasser said it was important to promote institutions that advocate for universal human rights as a "counter-jihad" to radical Islam. But he said Muslims like himself must do more to counter radicalization from within - "You shouldn't be solving theology," he told lawmakers.