If you’re not watching the Homeland Security Committee’s hearing on the question of Muslim-American radicalization, you just missed an incredibly powerful moment as Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota testified. Rest assured, though, that footage of his testimony will be played and re-played in coverage of the hearing. Ellison, one of two Muslim members of Congress, spent most of his time on the hearing’s first panel presenting a measured case that the hearing was “scapegoating” the entire Muslim-American community for the actions of a few radicals, saying “It’s wrong, it’s ineffective, and it risks making our country less safe.”
Ellison’s appearance at the hearing was doubly relevant because in addition to his personal Muslim faith, he represents a district in which some young Somali-Americans have indeed become radicalized and involved in potential terror plots. The congressman talked about the local FBI’s probe into the Somali-American community and the success of establishing relationships of trust with community members. “The best defense against extreme ideologies is social inclusion and engagement,” he said, arguing that today’s hearing risks marginalizing and demonizing Muslims.
But it was near the end of his testimony that Ellison became most personal, describing a Muslim-American first-responder who died on 9/11. His voice breaking, Ellison described Mohammad Salman Hamdani as a young man who loved being American, who played high school football, sang Handel’s Messiah, and drove a Honda with a “JEDI” license plate. Ellison choked back sobs as he described how Hamdani was criticized after his death, simply because of his religious faith. As he finished, Ellison could barely speak and several Democrats on the committee were wiping away tears as well.
It’s a story we hear all too frequently, but rarely in the form of a congressman breaking down in tears. The moment had the power of African-American leaders describing their experiences suffering the indignities of segregation. And it provided a stirring counterpoint to chairman Peter King’s opening statement, in which he made a compelling, reasoned case for the hearing and claimed the support of the Obama administration (citing Denis McDonough by name) for going forward with the hearings.
As Joe and others have argued, radicalization of some Muslim-Americans is a threat–a reality widely acknowledge within the Muslim-American community itself, as Congressman John Dingell told the committee. But Ellison’s testimony was a reminder of the pain caused when an entire faith is tarred for the actions of a handful. Context matters, and King would have done well to follow Ellison’s example in staging the hearing. An investigation that highlighted models of successful cooperation with the Muslim community in addition to examples of radicalization, that profiled those Muslims who have tipped law enforcement to plots in addition to those who have been involved in those plots, would be more constructive and more compassionate in its acknowledgment of the millions of loyal, faithful, ordinary American citizens who happen to be Muslim.