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Keith Ellison’s testimony before House Homeland Security Committee

Thank you Chairman King for allowing me to testify today. Though the Chairman and I sometimes disagree, including on the premise of this hearing, I appreciate his willingness to engage in this dialogue.

Thank you Chairman King for allowing me to testify today. Though the Chairman and I sometimes disagree, including on the premise of this hearing, I appreciate his willingness to engage in this dialogue. I also thank Ranking Member Bennie Thompson for his commitment to homeland security and civil rights for all. It’s a challenge to protect both security and liberty, but Congressman Thompson strikes the right balance.

I would like to introduce Talat Hamdani, who is with us today. She is the brave mother of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a first responder who died trying to rescue fellow Americans on 9/11.

I will make three points today. First, violent extremism is a serious concern to all Americans, and is the legitimate business of this Committee. Second, this Committee’s approach to violent extremism is contrary to American values, and threatens our security. Finally, we need increased understanding and engagement with Muslim American communities to keep America safe.

I want to elaborate on the first point.

Understanding the roots of domestic terrorism is the legitimate business of the House Homeland Security Committee. I share the Chairman’s concerns about violent extremism. I voted for The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 authored by Representative Jane Harman. This bill is a common sense approach to studying violent extremism in the United States. I plan to introduce a companion bill in the future.  

I recently made a presentation, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, called “Strengthening America’s Security: Identifying, Preventing and Responding to Domestic Terrorism.” My presentation addressed causes of violent extremism and solutions for prevention and intervention.

The safety of our families and communities is at stake in our discussion today. We should apply the utmost intellectual rigor to this issue—which leads to my second point. We need to conduct a thorough, fair analysis and do no harm. The approach of today’s hearing, unfortunately, does not meet these standards.

Today’s hearing is entitled, “The extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s response.”

Rep. Keith Ellison
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Rep. Keith Ellison

It is true that specific individuals, including some who are Muslims, are violent extremists. However, these are individuals — but not entire communities. Individuals like Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Faisel Shazad, and Nidal Hasan do not represent the Muslim American community. When their violent actions are associated with an entire community, then blame is assigned to a whole group. This is the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating, which is counter-productive.

This point is at the heart of my testimony today. 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.

Solutions to the scourge of domestic terrorism often emerge from individuals within the Muslim community—a point I address later in my testimony. However, demanding a “community response” (as the title of this hearing suggests) asserts that the entire community bears responsibility for the violent acts of individuals. Targeting the Muslim American community for the actions of a few is unjust. Actually all of us—all communities—are responsible for combating violent extremism. Singling out one community focuses our analysis in the wrong direction.

Throughout human history, individuals from all communities and faiths have used religion and political ideology to justify violence.  Let’s 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 and religion of these agents of violence as a matter of public policy? The answer is no.

Stoking fears about entire groups for a political agenda is also not new in American history.  During World War II the US government interned 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.

Let’s talk about facts rather than stereotypes. In fact, the Muslim American community rejects violent ideology. The RAND Corporation, a highly respected research organization, released a report last year that states the following: given the low rate of would-be violent extremists [only 100 amongst an estimated 3 million American Muslims] “…suggest[s] an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.”  

The RAND report concludes that a mistrust of Muslim Americans by other Americans is misplaced.

The Muslim American community across this country actively works with law enforcement officials—from dialogues with Attorney General Eric Holder to community meetings with local police officers in Minneapolis. Recently, tips from the Muslim American community foiled two domestic terror plots including the case of the Times Square Bomber and the Northern Virginia Five. Law enforcement officials depend upon these relationships.

A recent report from the Muslim Public Affairs Council stated that information provided by Muslim Americans has helped foil seven of the last 11 domestic terror plots and 40 percent of all plots since 9/11. A 2011 study from the Duke University Triangle Center on Terrorism reiterated that 40 percent of domestic terror plots have been prevented with the aid of the Muslim American community.

This cooperation with law enforcement is rooted in relationships and trust—relationships that we should nurture. A witness at today’s hearing, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee last year:

“To effectively detect and manage extremists, police need to have the trust and understanding of the Muslim communities who live within and outside the United States… Simply, police need public participation.”

Sheriff Baca recently commented on important cooperation between his office and the Muslim American community. He stated:

“We have as much cooperation as we are capable of acquiring through public trust relationships [with the American Muslim community]. Muslim Americans in the county of Los Angeles have been overwhelmingly astounded by terrorist attacks—like everyone else—and overwhelmingly concerned about a non-repeat performance of that kind—and are willing to get involved and help.”

As policy 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 Muslim American community, ultimately making all of us less safe.

We have seen the consequences of anti-Muslim sentiment — from the backlash against the Park51 Muslim Community Center to the hostilities against an Islamic Center in Mursfreesboro, Tennessee, to the threatened Quran burning in Gainesville, Florida. Zoning boards in communities like Dupage County, Illinois are denying permits to build new mosques.

At the height of the Park51 controversy a man asked a cabbie whether he was Muslim. When the cabbie said, “As-Salaam Alekum”, a common Muslim greeting that means “peace be unto you”, the individual stabbed him. According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups in the U.S. now number more than 1,000, an “all-time high,” and the threat of domestic terrorism from elements of the radical right is very real and growing. These are only a few examples of the danger of a hateful climate that results when communities are stereotyped inaccurately.

Denis McDonough, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, recently spoke at the ADAMS Center, the Dulles American Muslim Society. Mr. McDonough noted that al-Qaeda’s core recruiting argument is that the West is at war with Islam. A chief goal of our national security policy is to undermine this argument. This requires active engagement with the Muslim American community at home and throughout the world. As President Obama said in his Cairo speech, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace”.

This brings me to my third point. What should we be doing to address violent extremism and keep America safe?

The best defense against extremist ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement. FBI Agent Ralph Boelter, head of the Minneapolis FBI, illustrates my point. He led a large scale probe into counterterrorism involving local Somali-Americans heading overseas to fight with a terrorist organization. He is now coming to D.C. to become the Agency’s deputy assistant director in charge of counterterrorism.

Boelter’s strategy: To fight extremism, the Agency needs to establish sincere relationships with the community. “We had to be able to show people they could trust me, trust us,” Boelter said of the local community.

FBI Agent Boelter “showed a side to the FBI that people don’t see,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. “They needed that. They needed a little more to make their case. And it paid off because of the connections he made. People came forward. He became somebody that they were willing to go to.”

Unfortunately, some leaders continue to misrepresent events in my own community of Minneapolis. For example, this week the Chairman was on the Morning Joe TV show and said, “how about the number of young Somali men who went to Somalia and the Imams and the leaders in the Minneapolis Muslim community refused to cooperate [with them] at all. They were denying for a long time that they even left.”

This sweeping statement regarding the community I represent is simply not true. More importantly, why weren’t these law enforcement officials invited to testify before this committee about effective counterterrorism through engagement with the Muslim American community?

In January, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties convened a youth summit with Somali-American youth and law enforcement agencies in Minneapolis. The event attracted over 100 people including the U.S. Attorney, three of Minneapolis’ Somali-American police officers, myself, and several law enforcement and security agencies.

The meeting provided an opportunity for Somali youth groups to learn more about the various roles and responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and discuss community issues and concerns with government representatives. Meeting participants discussed ways in which Somali youth and government entities can improve communication and build trust in a variety of ways, from convening regular youth summits to supporting and participating in youth sporting activities.

Muslim Americans have been a part of America since the nation’s founding.  A little known fact is that Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is home to the oldest mosque in America. The Muslim American community is just like the rest of us. Muslims serve our nation as doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, factory workers, cab drivers, law enforcement officers, professors, firefighters, and members of the armed forces. Muslim Americans live in every community in America—they are our neighbors. In short, they are us. (Americans)

Every American, including Muslim Americans, suffered on 9/11.

29 Muslims died at the World Trade Center;

3 Muslims died in the hijacked planes (United Flight 175 and American Flight 11).

Muslims stood with the rest of America united in grief, in their resolve to protect America. Along with Americans of all faiths, Muslim Americans rushed in to save and rescue victims of Al-Quaeda’s terrorism.

Let me close with a 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 a Muslim American. He was one of those brave first responders who tragically lost their lives in the 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 No. 79 on the high school football team in Bayside, Queens, where he lived, and he was called Sal by his friends… He became a research assistant at Rockefeller University and drove an ambulance part-time. One Christmas, he sang in Handel’s Messiah in Queens. He saw all the Star Wars movies, and it was well known that his new Honda was the one with “Yung Jedi” license plates.

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. 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.

Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. 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.