Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison breaks down in Muslim radicalization hearings

Dem. Rep. Keith Ellison delivers testimony before the Homeland Security Committee on March 10, 2011.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Updated: 12:41pm ET

In testimony before the Homeland Security Committee's hearing on radicalization in the Muslim community Thursday, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim members of Congress, broke down in tears while delivering an emotional tribute to a young Muslim-American who lost his life in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - and whose reputation was later maligned due to his faith.

Ellison, who argues that the hearings unjustly target the Muslim-American community for the acts of a few Islamic terrorists, closed his remarks with the story of 23-year-old Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a paramedic who died trying to save lives in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Mr. Hamdani bravely sacrificed his life to try and help others on 9/11. After the tragedy some people tried to smear his character solely because of his Islamic faith," Ellison said, his voice breaking. "Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers only because he was Muslim. It was only when his remains were identified that these lies were fully exposed."

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"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," he continued.

The hearings, led by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), aim to investigate radicalization in the American Muslim community, but critics argue that the narrow focus of the investigation unfairly isolates and could alienate Muslim Americans.

King, who has been accused of McCarthyism over his tactics, maintains that the inquiry is "the logical response" to warnings from the Obama administration of the threat of homegrown terror.

Dem. Rep. Keith Ellison delivers testimony before the Homeland Security Committee on March 10, 2011.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

"As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we cannot allow the memories of that tragic day to fade away," he said. "...Today, we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalization is part of al Qaeda's strategy to continue attacking the United States."

In his opening statement, ranking committee member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) expressed his disappointment that the investigation did not have a broader focus and include anti-government and white supremacist groups. He warned that an investigation with such a narrow focus "that excludes known threats" lacked clarity and "may be myopic."

"I've heard concerns that today's hearing would stoke a climate of fear and distrust in the Muslim community. It may also increase the fear and distrust of the Muslim community -- for law enforcement officials' outreach, and cooperation may become more difficult," he added.

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King in his opening remarks accused his critics of "rage and hysteria." He argued that 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."

"This Committee cannot live in denial which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda," he said. "The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation."

King said he believed "the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans are outstanding Americans and make enormous contributions to our country" - but added that "there are realities we cannot ignore."

Ellison countered that isolating the investigation to Muslim Americans was unjust and unwise.

"Ascribing the evil acts of a few individuals to an entire community is wrong; it is ineffective; and it risks making our country less secure," he said.

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Arguing that "the best defense against extremist ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement," Ellison alleged that "the focus of today's hearing" would actually do the opposite -- by increasing suspicion of the Muslim-American community and "ultimately making all of us less safe."

"Targeting the Muslim American community for the actions of a few is unjust," he said. "Actually all of us--all communities--are responsible for combating violent extremism. Singling out one community focuses our analysis in the wrong direction."

In heated remarks before the panel, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) argued that the hearing was "an effort to demonize and to castigate a whole broad base of human beings." 

(Watch video at left.)

"I will tell you today that this breathing document is in pain," she said, pointing to a copy of the Constitution. "We could have had a hearing that spoke about any number of issues of terrorism. We might have gone back to the cold cases of the civil rights movement, acts of terror. We might have tried to understand where the Klansmen still roam today and terrorize individuals in parts of this country."

Asking among the panel members how many were Muslim -- to which two responded positively -- Jackson continued: "The reason why I asked that question is because, Muslims are here cooperating. They are doing what this hearing has suggested that they do not do! It is an irony and an outrage that we are wasting time when Muslims are sitting before us, a Muslim is on this panel, a Muslim has testified, and so I question: Where are the uncooperative Muslims?"

"This hearing today is playing into Al Qaeda right now around the world," she continued. "It is diminishing soldiers on the front lines that are Muslims - those who lost their lives. And it is going in the same route of an Arizona and other states."

Witnesses testifying at the hearing include family members of young men who became radicalized. They plan to tell the committee that the young men were brainwashed by Muslim extremists.