WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican congressman who has organized controversial hearings into radical Islam called Muslims "part of the mosaic" of America Wednesday and said they shouldn't feel threatened or intimidated by his inquiry.
"If there is going to be animosity, I would blame it on my opponents," Rep. Peter King said in a nationally broadcast interview.
King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, has come under withering criticism for the hearings scheduled to begin Thursday. Protests have already started, and comparisons to McCarthyism and the era of communist witch hunts are being heard.
In one appearance on morning television, King was asked if he was singling out the Muslim community rather than focusing on a more generalized terror threat against America.
"It might be politically correct, but it makes no sense to talk about other types of extremism, when the main threat to the United States today is talking about al Qaida," King said. He noted that Attorney General Eric Holder has said there have been some 50 homegrown terrorists arrested in this country and that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the threat has never been higher.
"It would diffuse and water down the hearings" to broaden the line of inquiry, King said. The congressman said the hearings are aimed at protecting Muslims from being pressured to commit terrorist acts.
At the White House Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked about the administration's position on King's hearings and said, "we welcome congressional involvement in this issue."
"In the United States, we don't practice guilt by association," Carney added. "We believe Muslim-Americans are part of the solution."
Anticipating the hearings, the White House had dispatched deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough to give a speech about religious tolerance Sunday at a Washington-area mosque known for its cooperation with the FBI and its rejection of the al-Qaida brand of Islam. McDonough's message: "We're all Americans."
Before coming to Congress, King had been an outspoken supporter of the Irish Republican Army. The then-comptroller of Nassau County, N.Y., told a 1982 pro-IRA rally on Long Island that he supported the IRA's "struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry," The New York Times reported in Wednesday's editions.
Three years later, it said, King declared, "If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it."
King on Wednesday called the article distorted said he wasn't worried that his actions "were wrong."
In 2005, as a member of Congress, King called on the IRA to disband, saying it was a major impediment to peace in Northern Ireland. He accused the outlawed IRA of making a string of bad decisions that had sewn hostility within Irish-American circles.
King told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that the IRA and al-Qaida are very different and that the IRA never attacked America.
Of the hearings this week, Rep. Keith Ellison on Wednesday faulted his colleague for inviting only a single law enforcement witness. The Minnesota Democrat, one of just two Muslim members of Congress, also accused King of prejudging his committee's inquiry, saying the controversy surrounding the hearings are setting "a tone of blame" even before the inquiry is gaveled to order.
"What we want to do is build cooperation and trust and open lines of communication," Ellison said.
King promised to "run a good hearing. I will run an honest and fair hearing."
"As an example of my good faith, I invited Congressman Ellison to testify at this hearing," King said. "If I was somehow trying to ram the hearing through, I certainly wouldn't have invited Keith Ellison."
Mike Ghouse, president of the World Muslim Congress, welcomed the hearings.
"It is our duty to keep law and order and faithfully guard the safety of every citizen," he said in a statement. "Hate is one of the many sources of disrupting the peace in a society and it is our responsibility to seek the source of such hate and work to mitigate it."
King said he hoped his critics would embrace his inquiry and put aside "all this yelling and screaming that's going on."
The congressman told The AP that radical Islam is a distinct threat that must be investigated regardless of whose sensibilities are offended.
"You have a violent enemy from overseas which threatens us and which is recruiting people from a community living in our country," King said. He said that's what the hearing is all about.