WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) listens during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Homeland Security held the hearing to examine "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Peter King
An emotional debate over American Muslims took place in Congress Thursday during a hearing punctuated by tearful testimony, angry recriminations and political theater.
Republican Rep. Peter King declared U.S. Muslims are doing too little to help fight terror in America. Democrats warned of inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment and energizing al-Qaida.
Framed by photos of the burning World Trade Center and Pentagon, the families of two young men blamed the Islamic community for inspiring young men to commit terrorism. On the other side, one of the two Muslims in Congress wept while discussing a Muslim firefighter who died in the attacks.
The sharp divisions reflect a country still struggling with how best to combat terrorism nearly a decade after the September 2001 attacks. Al-Qaida has built a strategy recently around motivating young American Muslims to become one-man terror cells, and the U.S. government has wrestled with fighting that effort.
King, a Long Island congressman and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he called the hearing because Muslim community leaders need to speak out more loudly against terrorism and work more closely with authorities. Democrats wanted the hearing to focus on terror threats more broadly, including from white supremacists.
"This hearing today is playing into al-Qaida right now around the world," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who said the committee was trampling the Constitution.
Republicans said that was nothing but political correctness.
"We have to know our enemy, and it is radical Islam in my judgment," said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.
Many New York Muslims and their advocates kept a close eye on Thursday's hearing, and some told NBC New York that what they heard was upsetting.
Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center on the Upper East Side said the discussion didn't represent a fair or accurate view of American Muslims.
"There is a common perception that Muslims are basically good law abiding citizens that are cooperating with law enforcement, and that is the opposite of the notions behind this hearing," Ali told NBC New York.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said the tone of the day "stigmatized, stereotyped and profiled Muslim Americans."
Thursday's hearing was the first high-profile event for the new Republican majority in the House.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, wept as he discussed Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Pakistani-American paramedic who died responding to the World Trade Center attack.
"This committee's approach to this particular subject, I believe, is contrary to the best of American values and threatens our security, or could potentially," Ellison said.
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 isolation from his family.
Bledsoe said he didn't fully understand what was happening as his son became increasingly distant, stopped coming home for holidays and changed his name. He said the United States is not being aggressive enough about rooting radical elements from the Islamic community.
"We're talking about stepping on their toes, and they're talking about stamping us out," Bledsoe said. "Why don't people take their blinders off?"