By Jeremy Pelofsky and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is targeting Muslim Americans for recruits to terrorism and the community must do more to combat Islamic radicalization, a lawmaker said on Thursday as he opened hearings that have been criticized as a witch hunt.
Peter King, the chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee who called the hearings, has accused the Muslim community of refusing to cooperate with law enforcement and charged that preaching in some U.S. mosques was leading to radicalization.
"To combat this threat, moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim community," King said. "Today, we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalization is part of al Qaeda's strategy to continue attacking the United States."
King denied accusations that the hearings were "radical or un-American" and said there was no comparison between the threat by al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists and other "isolated madmen."
The New York congressman has been criticized by religious and civil rights leaders as going on a witch hunt for focusing on a single community, but he has defended the hearings, citing the open attempts by al Qaeda militants to recruit its members to launch attacks.
He has pointed to some individuals who have gone overseas to try to join militant groups, the attempt by a Saudi student caught in Texas as he was trying to build bombs and the failed attempt by a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen to detonate a car bomb in New York's bustling Times Square last year.
Democratic Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in the House, castigated the committee for its approach and broke down crying as he recounted the story of a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic who died when he responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.
"After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character solely because of his Islamic faith," he said. "Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was really with the attackers because he was a Muslim."
He said that the young man should be identified as someone "who gave everything for his fellow Americans" rather than solely as a member of a religion or ethnic group. Ellison tried to hide his tears behind his papers and quickly left the room after his remarks.
The senior Democrat in the House, Michigan Representative John Dingell, urged King and the committee to ensure that their investigation would not "blot the good name or the loyalty or raise questions about the decency of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans."
The focus of the hearings have also raised concerns within the Obama administration to the point that a senior White House official was dispatched to speak to Muslim leaders in Virginia where he told them they were "not part of the problem."
In addition, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took a veiled swipe at King on Wednesday, saying the focus by law enforcement was on individuals rather than an entire community because "we don't want to stigmatize, we don't want to alienate entire communities."
(Editing by David Alexander and Doina Chiacu)