Washington — Rep. Peter King’s first hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims will begin at 9:30 a.m. The hearing room, on the third floor of the Cannon building, across the hall from the Homeland Security Committee office, is slowly filling up with Muslim leaders, reporters, hordes of photographers, and members of the public. Finding a seat is tough: Many folks have waited outside since early this morning, hoping to snag a spot.
9:28 a.m. — GOP aides tell us that three U.S. congressmen will be the first to testify this morning: Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) and Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.). This should take up much of the first hour.
9:34 a.m. — The witnesses arrive and bulbs pop as cameramen and photographers crowd around the dais.
9:36 a.m. — King, the committee chairman, gavels the hearing into session. He confirms that the House members will go first. The committee agrees, without objection, to not subject the congressional witnesses to questions, due to time constraints.
9:40 a.m. — King, his voice firm, explains the purpose of hearings. He calls them “vital and important” at the top. Today’s session, he says, will be the “first in a series of hearings” dealing with the “critical issue” of Islamic extremism in United States. He adds that he is “well aware” that the hearings are stirring controversy and reactions ranging from “disbelief” and “rage” to “hysteria.” Again, he emphasizes that he will “not back down.” To do so, he warns, “would be an abdication” of his committee’s duty to “protect Americans from terrorist attacks.” There is “nothing radical or un-American” about that, he says.
9:47 a.m. — King quiets the room when he brings up September 11. He tells the committee that they cannot let its memory “fade away.”
9:50 a.m. — Rep. Bennie Thompson (D., Miss.) the ranking member of the committee, gives his opening statement. He urges King to look beyond Muslims and to investigate “anti-government” and “white supremacist” groups. He cites studies from the Southern Poverty Law Center to make his case. He worries that King may be basing his premise on “personal experience,” as a New Yorker. Such “narrow focus,” Thompson cautions, excluding “other known threats,” makes the hearing “myopic.”
9:54 a.m. — Dingell, the dean of the House, takes the stand for a short statement. He talks about his “polyglot” and “diverse” congressional district, which includes many Muslim and Arab constituents. He tells King that he does not want this hearing to “blot” the “decency” of Muslims “en masse.”
10:12 a.m. — Rep. Keith Ellison begins to tear up when describing Mohammad Salman Hamdania, a Muslim man who assisted rescue workers on 9/11. Photographers are jumping over themselves to get a shot of Ellison as he struggles to testify. Muslims, he says, his voice cracking, “are our neighbors, they are us.” He says that they, like all Americans, suffered after September 11.
10:13 a.m. — King does not respond to Ellison’s testimony, instead letting the congressman voice his concerns, and express his emotions, without comment. Ellison had trouble wrapping up his talk, almost at a loss for words, then promptly left the hearing room.
10:15 a.m. — Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) takes the stand and details his concerns with how the Obama administration has handled radicalization. He chides Attorney General Eric Holder for not doing enough to address the issue. Side note: CAIR’s “Build a Wall of Resistance: Don’t Talk to the F.B.I” poster is displayed on a stand beside the committee, looming in fluorescent orange:
10:26 a.m. — Here is the conclusion of King’s introductory remarks, as prepared:
Let me thank all of the witnesses for giving of their valuable time to be with us today. I want to express special thanks, however, to Melvin Bledsoe and Abdirizak Bihi. These brave men have endured suffering no father or uncle should ever have to go through. Their courage and spirit will put a human face on the horror which Islamist radicalization has inflicted and will continue to inflict on good families, especially those in the Muslim community, unless we put aside political correctness and define who our enemy truly is.
As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we cannot allow the memories of that tragic day to fade away. We must remember that in the days immediately following the attack, we are all united in our dedication to fight back against Al Qaeda and its ideology.
Today, we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalization is part of al Qaeda’s strategy to continue attacking the United States. Al Qaeda is actively targeting the American Muslim Community for recruitment. Today’s hearing will address this dangerous trend.
10:28 a.m. — The congressional witnesses have wrapped and are quickly escorted out of the hearing room.
10:30 a.m. — Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona physician and military veteran, takes the stand. He begins by saying that he is a “devout Muslim” but welcomes the hearings, unlike the three congressmen. Calling King and others “bigots” or “Islamaphobes,” he says, “won’t solve the problem” of radicalization. “Elements” of his religious community, he asserts, are radicalizing. He calls the effort to recruit young Muslim males “moral corruption” and a “hijacking” that needs to be addressed. “We are failing,” he says. By “soaking up the bandwidth” with talk of “victimization,” fellow Muslims are avoiding a discussion about the “root causes” of radicalization in America.
10:38 a.m. — The CAIR poster mentioned earlier has now been taken down by King’s staff.
10:45 a.m. — Melvin Bledsoe, the father of Carlos Bledsoe (Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad), is sharing a moving, disturbing tale: how his son was radicalized. As he testifies, a large, poster-board picture of his son is displayed beside the committee. “Tomorrow it could be your son, your daughter,” Bledsoe says. “It might be an African-American child, or a child with blond hair and blue eyes. But one thing is for sure: It will happen again.”
11:00 a.m. — After hearing from Abdirizak Bihi, the brother of Burhan Hassan’s mother and the director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, the committee welcomed the Democrats’ witnesses, starting with Lee Baca, the sheriff of Los Angeles County. Baca is defending the Muslim community and calls them cooperative. They are “fiercely patriotic,” Baca says.
11:05 a.m. — After opening statements, King opened up the floor to committee questions. He turned first to Jasser, who painted a detailed picture of the Muslim community, saying there is a stark difference between those who believe in “political Islam” versus those who simply practice the religion peacefully. He tells King to look into how mosques are funded, to make sure that “fundamentalist” dollars are not being funneled into the United States.
11:08 a.m. — King bemoans how the hearings have been attacked, citing criticism from Kim Kardashian (to laughs) and the New York Times.
11:22 a.m. — Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D., Calif.) is challenging Jasser on the CAIR poster, which tells Muslims to seek an attorney before speaking with law-enforcement officials. “Any minority,” she says, should “not waive” its right to an attorney. Jasser, in a bit of fireworks, did not budge from his position, telling Sanchez that Muslims should cooperate when appropriate. “I am not constantly in fear of the government,” he replied. Sanchez did not like that remark. Police officers, she shot back, often intimidate her, and when she gets pulled over, her “heart starts to beat.” Jasser shrugged off the theatrics and reiterated his argument that American Muslims must do more to help federal investigators.
11:50 a.m. — Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) took the spotlight, railing against King and describing his effort to investigate radical Muslims as “playing into al-Qaeda” and “going the same route as Arizona.” In a bit of political theater, she held up a copy of the Constitution and continued to speak, even as King banged his gavel. “I will tell you today that this breathing document is in pain,” she said. The ruckus caused light laughs throughout the hearing room, as onlookers wondered whether Jackson Lee would yield the floor.
“There is no redeeming or factual information that we can receive today,” Jackson Lee said, her voice rising. “We don’t disrespect the witnesses, but it has already been tainted.” She asked the committee to look into those who oppose the “Jewish community” and complained that Muslim Americans are now “scared,” thanks to King. “This is an outrage,” she concluded.
Noon — One of the key targets of this hearing is CAIR, the Council on Islamic-American Relations. King has brought up CAIR at numerous points this morning. Congressman Wolf also criticized how the group has handled radicals. “Let me be clear, CAIR is counterproductive and it is hurting the American Muslim community,” Wolf said. “I raise these concerns because if we are to successfully counter radical terrorism, law enforcement will need the active engagement of the Muslim communities.” CAIR, he added, is too often “attacking the reputation of any who dare to raise concerns about domestic radicalization.”
12:28 p.m. — Rep. Brian Higgins (D., N.Y.) took the mic and though he did not call the hearing useless, he did not welcome its premise. The United States, he says, has a “Christian, Judeo, Islamic tradition.” The prophet Muhammad, he adds, is a “prophet of mercy.” Higgins, a Catholic, noted that his faith shares values with the Muslims and that Islam should not be singled out.
12:30 p.m. — A side note: In the back of the large hearing room, which is dotted with chandeliers, hang framed portraits of the September 11 attacks, including photographs of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames.
12:47 p.m. — Rep. Chip Cravaack (R., Minn.) calls CAIR a “terrorist organization” in his questioning of Lee Baca, the L.A. County sheriff.
1:07 p.m. — Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), a freshman from suburban Philadelphia and a former U.S. attorney, takes the mic. The tie between Islam and “jihadism,” he notes, is the “elephant in the room.” Jasser took up the topic in reply, talking more about “political Islam,” which he calls a “movement to create a theocratic or Koran-based” government. He says, with disdain, that Democrats try to “dismiss” him because he is not an “expert” in Islamic law. That mindset, he says, prevents Muslims from self-examining their role, or inaction, with regard to radicalization.
1:20 p.m. — Sheriff Baca has left the hearing. Congressman Thompson, the ranking Democrat, thanked him for coming and praised Baca’s testimony, which championed Muslims’ work with law enforcement, as “essential.”
1:22 p.m. — Jasser says that it is time to “take on the imams” and remind them that they are teachers. Also, via Mike Warren, “Spotted: Code Pink activist with shirt that says ‘No Bigotry.’”
1:25 p.m. — Rep. Al Green (R., Texas) makes a surprise appearance. Green, a former member of the committee, goes on a riff about the Ku Klux Klan. “[The hearing] may be right, but it doesn’t look right when we take on Islam and allow this to take place,” he says. He would like to see the committee look into the abuses of the KKK and its links to Christianity. “Why not include the KKK in this discussion today?” he asks. “The KKK has perpetuated 100 years of terrorism on this country.”
1:37 p.m. — Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), another former member of the committee, makes an appearance. He sat down at a table before King, his white hair shining under the Klieg lights. “We miss you, Bill,” King said warmly. “We’ll see in another five minutes,” Pascrell replied, which set off chuckles in the hearing room. Pascrell, as he hinted, is no fan of the hearing. “When we don’t understand people, we are bound to mischaracterize and stereotype,” he said. He turned toward Bledsoe, who had called radicals the “other side.” Pascrell does not like that term. “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” he remarked. “We are all in this together.” He continued in this vein for a couple more minutes. King was quick to get in the final word: “Even after five minutes of that, Mr. Pascrell, I still love ya,” he said.
1:45 p.m. — The hearing has concluded. King will hold a media availability shortly. Thanks for following.
1:50 p.m. — King meets the press, calls the initial hearing an “outstanding” exercise. “It was an extremely productive, worthwhile hearing,” he says. “I am more convinced then ever that these are appropriate hearings to hold. We broke down the wall of political correctness on an issue that has to be addressed.” King then chided the press for its “mindless hysteria” in the run-up to the session.