WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter King Wednesday mounted a defense of his planned hearing Thursday on what he calls the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism.
Under fire from civil libertarians and many religious groups for focusing solely on Muslims, the Seaford Republican denied that the hearing would demonize Islam and said he just wants to alert the public about al-Qaida's attempt to radicalize and recruit young men in this country.
"The overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding Americans," he said on "Today" on NBC. "I want to protect the people in the Muslim community. I want to protect the broad American community as well, because we are one nation."
National and local Muslim leaders say they worry about the message the panel will send to followers of Islam everywhere.
"What he is doing will basically marginalize the community further," said Faroque Khan, a board member at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. "These hearings are seen all over the world and if this is seen as Muslim-bashing, it could have an adverse impact even overseas."
But King insists American Muslim leaders in "too many cases are not cooperative, not willing to speak out and condemn this type of radicalization that is going on."
Alejandro Beutel of the Muslim Public Affairs Council disputes King's complaints, saying his study found Muslims provided many tips to authorities.
Unlike previous hearings, he said, "We see Rep. King's hearing as political theater rather than problem-solving."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said King "works tirelessly to ensure that our homeland is secure."
Thursday King will use his bully pulpit as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee to press Muslims to take a lead role in fighting homegrown terrorism in a hearing that has garnered support from some scholars and police officials.
Still, he'll be treading a minefield, potentially alienating the community he wants to engage as he picks through the complex relations between Muslims and law enforcement -- while putting his own image on the line.
The hearing has prompted protests, an embrace of U.S. Muslims by the White House and an arm's-length response from the House GOP leader. Yet as the opposition has grown louder, King has dug in deeper.
"He has been very effective, he's smart and he's energetic," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "And I don't quite understand why he is doing this."
King, who insists he won't be cowed by political correctness, said what he's doing represents "a logical progression" from worried statements by top Justice and Homeland Security officials about homegrown terrorists inspired by al-Qaida.
The hearing will feature Abdirizak Bihi testifying about local imams discouraging cooperation with authorities after his nephew joined a terror group in Somalia, and Melvin Bledsoe, talking about how the radicalization of his Muslim-convert son ended in bloodshed.
Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice and others acknowledge that since Sept. 11, tension exists between authorities and Muslims, exacerbated by FBI and police surveillance of Muslims' religious and political activities.
Some say King opens himself to criticism by holding Muslims accountable for policing terrorism but dismissing his past support of IRA terrorism because it didn't threaten the United States.
"He's put himself in a bit of a corner here," Ornstein said.
How to see the hearings
Thursday's House Homeland Security Committee hearing will be broadcast in its entirety live on C-SPAN3 beginning at 9:30 a.m. MSNBC will carry the opening statement of chairman Peter King (R-Seaford), with additional coverage throughout the day, a spokeswoman said. CNN will also carry portions of the testimony
-- Reid J. Epstein