New York Republican Congressman Peter King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, held a controversial hearing yesterday on what he calls the "radicalization" of the American Muslim community. Critics call the hearings a modern-day form of McCarthyism. We speak to Talat Hamdani, the mother of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Minnesota Democrat Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, broke down in tears at the hearing when telling the story of her son. We also speak with Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: New York Republican Congressman Peter King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, held a controversial hearing yesterday on what he calls the "radicalization" of the American Muslim community. Critics describe the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims.
King refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. He also did not invite any federal law enforcement officials to testify on the nature and extent of the threat that he was examining. Instead, the hearing included testimony from the families of two young men who blame the Islamic community for recruiting them to terrorism, as well as a Muslim Arizona doctor who was featured in a film that claims the fifth column of Muslim extremists have infiltrated America with the intent of establishing a theocratic state.
With photos of the burning World Trade Center and the Pentagon on display, King opened the hearing by condemning criticism of his effort as political correctness.
REP. PETER KING: Today’s hearing will be the first in a series of hearings dealing with the critical issue of the radicalization of Muslim Americans. I am well aware that the announcement of these hearings has generated considerable controversy and opposition. Some of this opposition, such as my colleague and friends, Mr. Ellison and Mr. Pascrell, has been measured and thoughtful. Other opposition, both from special interest groups and the media, has ranged from disbelief to paroxysms of rage and hysteria.
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. Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings.
Indeed, congressional investigation of Muslim American radicalization is the logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings which the Obama administration has been making in recent months. This committee cannot live in denial, which is what some of us would do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to al-Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th. 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. Indeed, by the Justice Department’s own record, not one terror-related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or antiwar groups.
As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we cannot allow the memory of that tragic day to fade away. We must remember that in the days following the attack we were 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Long Island Congressmember Peter King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, opening yesterday’s hearing on what he called the "radicalization" of the American Muslim community. Among the first to testify was Congressmember Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who’s the first Muslim elected to Congress.
REP. KEITH ELLISON: Throughout human history, individuals from all communities and faiths have used religion and political ideology to justify violence. Let’s just think about the KKK, America’s oldest terrorist organization; the Oklahoma City bombing; the shooting at the Holocaust Museum by James von Brunn; and bombings at Planned Parenthood clinics. Did Congress focus on the ethnic group or religion of these agents of violence as a matter of public policy? The answer is no.
Stoking fears about an entire group for political agenda is not new in American history. During World War II, the United States government interned the Japanese Americans and spied on German Americans. During John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, his opponents portrayed a dire future for an America with a Catholic president. We now view these events of our past as a breach of our treasured American values.
As leaders, we need to be rigorous about our analysis of violent extremism. Our responsibility includes doing no harm. I am concerned that the focus of today’s hearing may increase suspicion of the American Muslim community, ultimately making us all a little less safe. We have seen the consequences of Anti-Muslim sentiment, from backlash against Park51 Muslim Community Center to the hostilities against the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to a threatened Quran burning in Gainesville, Florida. Zoning boards in communities like DuPage, Illinois, are denying permits to build mosques. At the height of the Park51 controversy, a man asked a cabbie whether he was a Muslim. When the cabbie said, "As-salamu alaykum," which means "Peace be unto you," the individual stabbed him.
Let me close with a true story, but remember that it’s only one of many American stories that could be told. Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a 23-year-old paramedic, a New York City police cadet and Muslim American. He was one of those brave first responders who tragically lost his life in 9/11 terrorist attacks almost a decade ago. As the New York Times eulogized, he wanted to be seen as an all-American kid. He wore number 79 on the high school football team in Bayside, Queens, where he lived. He was called Sal by his friends. He became a research assistant at the Rockefeller University and drove an ambulance part-time. One Christmas, he sang Handel’s Messiah in Queens. He saw all of the Star Wars movies. And it’s well known that his new Honda was the one that read — with the "Young Jedi" license plates.
Mr. Hamdani bravely sacrificed his life to try to help others on 9/11. After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character, solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammed Salman 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Emotional testimony from Congressman Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, the first Muslim elected to Congress, telling the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who died on 9/11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center. He was 23 years old. Sitting behind Congressman Ellison at the hearing was Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani. She joins us today in the studio today.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s very good to have you, Talat.
TALAT HAMDANI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were attending this hearing before you even knew Congressman Ellison would raise the story of your son?
TALAT HAMDANI: Yes, the moment I discovered that the hearings will be held, I decided I have to go. And I got two seats from my congressman, Tim Bishop, and he was very — I’m very grateful — instrumental in getting me those two seats. And Keith Ellison, you know, I had no clue that he will be talking about Salman. But he had called me the night before, I guess, when he had discovered that I am attending the hearings, to take permission to mention Salman. And I said, "Fine, it would be an honor."
JUAN GONZALEZ: But you didn’t expect that he would present such a long presentation on the role of your son.
TALAT HAMDANI: No. Yes, I thought he would just mention, like he did at the beginning. And that’s what was — I thought that would be it.
AMY GOODMAN: What is so astounding about your son is the fact that he wasn’t even in the area. He rushed to the area to help people.
TALAT HAMDANI: Voluntarily.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is where he died. I remember at the time, afterwards, the New York Post headline that screamed, "Missing or Hiding?"
TALAT HAMDANI: "Or Hiding?"
AMY GOODMAN: "Mystery of NYPD Cadet from Pakistan.” And it went on to say, “Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Queens home for his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work,” the New York Post wrote, and vilified him.
TALAT HAMDANI: They did. And the paper went on to say that at 11:00 a.m. he was seen at the Midtown tunnel, and to look for him, not under the rubble, but he’s hiding. You know, they slandered. They slandered him, you know? Character assassination, you know? I mean, a person gives his life.
AMY GOODMAN: You went with your husband, your late husband, who I had the good fortune to meet a year after the 9/11 attacks when you both walked quietly down to 9/11 on the anniversary.
TALAT HAMDANI: First anniversary.
AMY GOODMAN: And you went to Mecca to pray. Back here at home, the press was all outside your door.
TALAT HAMDANI: All outside.
AMY GOODMAN: "Had they found the 9/11 bomber?" was the idea.
TALAT HAMDANI: Yes, that was — now I realize it. At that time, I wasn’t here. But my sister and my 85-year-old mom was there. And she — they tell us that there were all those three cars. So I just asked her — she said, like for three days, they were parked out there.
AMY GOODMAN: From villain to hero. Ultimately, at your son’s funeral, the mayor spoke, the police commissioner spoke. And he is named in the USA PATRIOT Act?
TALAT HAMDANI: For his heroism, as a 23-year-old Pakistani American of — no, 23-year-old American of Pakistani descent who went down there to help and is missing now. So, at the time when the PATRIOT Act was introduced, October 4, 2001, it was missing, because he was missing at that moment. And now he’s dead. The Congress needs to honor him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you sat there in the hearing yesterday and saw Congressman King call some families there who were blaming the Muslim community for recruiting their sons into extremist actions, obviously, the congressman never thought to ask you to speak at the hearing.
TALAT HAMDANI: Congressman King, he knows me. We had — I’m a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. And we had been asking him to give us a meeting for two weeks. After two weeks, finally, the office said, "OK, we’ll give you a meeting in D.C." So we traveled, three members, although Mr. King lives in New York, we are in New York, all three New Yorkers. We traveled from New York to D.C. to meet him on February 28th. And what does he do? As we walk into his office, he’s walking out to another meeting.
So we told the aide, Dina, that "We are willing to — we’ve come all the way here. We’ll wait, one hour, two hour, five hours. Whatever it takes, we’ll wait." And she said, "No, there’s no way that you can have a meeting with him." So this is who this congressperson is. I mean, we traveled, victims — you know, we lost our children. And he does not have the courage to sit down and talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Among the fiercest critics at the hearing was Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.
TALAT HAMDANI: Jackson, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: This is some of what she had to say.
REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I’m reminded of someone — a proverb now quoted by Sheila Jackson Lee: "Cleaning a dirty kitchen, you can’t clean it with dirty water." There are no redeeming factual information that we will receive today that can add to the abhorrence that all us have on terrorism in the United States of America. We don’t disrespect the witnesses — at least I do not. But, you see, it has already been tainted, this hearing. There are no loud signs of reasoning that are coming through this hearing. The reason is because it has already been classified as an effort to demonize and to castigate a whole broad base of human beings. I cannot stand for that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let’s turn to another clip of yesterday’s hearing. This is Georgia Republican Representative Paul Broun.
REP. PAUL BROUN: When I was in the Marine Corps, I was taught to know your enemy. And I think that’s extremely important. And the enemy in this — the focus of this hearing today is not the Islamic religion. It’s Islamicists. It’s the radical jihadists. It’s the radicalization of our youth, as Mr. Bledsoe and Mr. Bihi have talked about. And I think it’s absolutely critical that we as a nation focus upon doing exactly what I was taught in the United States Marine Corps: to know your enemy.
Dr. Jasser, I’m very appreciative of your work and your testimony, and particularly your answer to Mr. Richmond, because I think it’s extremely important to focus on who wants to destroy this country. And I believe that there are — that there are entities within this country that are supporting those radical jihadists. I think there are organizations that are very public that are supporting the radical jihadists. We need to know exactly who our enemy is. We need to focus upon that enemy and not let political correctness deter us from that.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Paul Broun, Republican from Georgia, in the hearings held by the Long Island Congressman Peter King, dealing with what he called the "radicalization" of the Muslim American community.
Mark Potok is also joining us, from Montgomery, Alabama, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. You heard the congressman saying, "know your enemy." Talk about the threats in this country, Mark Potok.
MARK POTOK: Well, when we listened to Peter King in one of the earlier clips saying there’s no political — there’s no equivalency with neo-Nazis and so on, you know, he is simply misrepresenting objective reality. The Hill newspaper reported a few days ago that the FBI has said that about two-thirds of all terrorism in this country between 1980 and 2001 was committed by non-Islamic American extremists. Since between 2001 and 2005, according to the same report, that figure went up to 95 percent.
You know, I would recall just one of about 75 domestic terrorist plots we’ve tracked since the Oklahoma City bombing. Back in ’98, there was a Klan plot to blow up a particular gas refinery in Texas. At the time, the authorities said that 30,000 people would have been killed had this plot in fact come off. That is 10 times the number of people who died on 9/11.
So, look, I’m not suggesting that jihadists, foreign jihadists, aren’t a threat, or even a certain number of domestic or sort of homegrown jihadists, but it is simply false to say that, you know, that it’s this massive threat out there and that concerns about radical right are silly.
AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about Kevin William Harpham, ironically, this week, taken into custody in connection with the attempted bombing of the Martin Luther King march in Spokane, Washington.
MARK POTOK: That’s right. And let’s remember that Peter King just — we just heard Peter King saying there was not one terror-related case that related to the radical right in recent years. You know, just the day before yesterday, a man named Kevin Harpham was arrested and has been charged in connection with the attempted mass murder, with an IED, of Martin Luther King Day marchers in Spokane, Washington. He had constructed a device, or allegedly constructed a device, that probably would have taken out scores of those people. It was packed with shrapnel. There was rat poison in the device, reportedly, that would have supposedly prevented victims’ blood from coagulating. So, in other words, it was meant to kill as many people as possible.
And this man, it turns out, was a member of the National Alliance, for many years the leading neo-Nazi group in America. We found all kinds of postings on neo-Nazi websites and forums from him, talking about the coming race war, talking about what was and what wasn’t useful for building bombs, talking about all those kinds of things, talking about how furious he was at anti-racists and contemplating the possibility of shooting them and so on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to — Talat Hamdani, I’d like you to react and tell us what you would hope Americans would — how they would react to these hearings that attempt to malign the entire Muslim community in the United States.
TALAT HAMDANI: Well, the hearing, it was a charade. It was Peter King’s hearing. It was his judgment. But the representatives of our Congress, majority of them, who took an oath to defend the Constitution, they defended the Constitution yesterday. Rep. Sheila Jackson, Carson, Rep. — you know, Mr. Thompson — everybody. They said this is not about — it is about radicalization, but across the board. It should be opened up, because there are many radicalization of various people, but not of one faith. To close in on one faith, like Keith Ellison said, God bless him, it is saying, "We will investigate the drug dealers, but only the black drug dealers."
AMY GOODMAN: Talat Hamdani, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And we will post the full interview with Mark Potok online at democracynow.org.