Muslim leaders in Minnesota worry that a congressional hearing Thursday on homegrown Islamic radicalization will further divide them from the broader community and lead to a possible backlash.
Somali-Americans say they're again in the uncomfortable position of being defined by the case of the two dozen young men accused of returning to their homeland to fight with the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Some activists and religious leaders also take umbrage with the Twin Cities Somali man who provided testimony about how he thinks his teen nephew was indoctrinated.
The hearing, convened by U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, brought a dreadful sense of deja vu for some Somali Minnesotans.
Exactly two years ago, another congressional committee explored the disturbing phenomenon of young Minnesota men radicalized to fight in their native Somalia.
Minneapolis activist Abdirizak Bihi related their story Thursday to members of Congress -- and to a national audience watching on C-SPAN.
Bihi's teenage nephew who was among roughly two dozen Twin Cities men who left Minnesota to fight alongside al-Shabaab. He's now believed dead. Bihi repeated criticisms against a Minneapolis mosque where his nephew and friends studied.
"What I ask you is to open an investigation as to what is happening in my community," he said. "We are isolated by Islamic organizations and leaders who support them."
Bihi also said that when families like his wanted to report their sons missing to authorities, leaders of the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque tried to bully the relatives into keeping quiet, saying they would end up in Guantanamo. He told U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-California, that the mosque officials also warned the families of another consequence:
"If you do that, you're gonna be responsible for the eradication of all mosques and all Islamic society in North America," Bihi recalled being told. "And you will have eternal fire and hell."
Lungren asked Bihi if he thought he and his family were targets of intimidation to stop him from cooperating with law enforcement.
"Yes, intimidation in its purest form," Bihi replied.
But officials at the Abubakar mosque deny ever trying to silence the families. It's true that back in 2008, many Somalis in Minnesota were skeptical that the missing men could have been recruited for jihad. Some were angered about Bihi's accusations, which they considered reckless.
Abdirashid Abdi, a board member of the Abubakar mosque, said Bihi is misrepresenting the facts.
"Can Bihi represent the Somali-American community, and claim he's speaking on behalf of the Somali-American community?" Abdi asked. "No, he cannot."
But it's not just religious leaders who say the mosque is being unfairly maligned. The FBI said it has no reason to believe the mosque was indoctrinating people.
"At this point, we have uncovered no evidence to show there was any effort of any mosque or mosque leadership or mosque imam to take part in any recruitment or radicalization of these young men," said Special Agent E.K .Wilson of the Minneapolis division of the FBI.
While investigators believe that some of the secret meetings happened in a mosque, it doesn't appear to be a case of a radical imam brainwashing his students. In most cases, Wilson said, it was likely friends influencing friends.
"It looks like the recruitment process of these men was on a very peer-to-peer type scale," Wilson said. "Some of the individuals were more culpable than others, but it was a very lateral chain of command when it came to who is responsible."
The investigation is ongoing.
On Thursday, a small group of Muslims watched the congressional hearing remotely in a Minneapolis conference room.
Some got emotional when U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, recounted the story of a Muslim first responder who died in the September 11 attacks on New York and was initially suspected of being involved because of his religion.
"Muhammad Saalman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans," Ellison said tearfully. "His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as a man who gave his life for other Americans."
Zuhur Ahmed of Minneapolis watched as her representative wept, and paused to dab away her own tears. Ahmed, who hosts a Twin Cities Somali-language radio show, said violent extremism must be addressed. But she said it feels like Muslims are the only ones being singled out.
"As I was wiping my tears, she said, "I was thinking what is it about my faith that is not being accepted as an American? My faith? My scarf? My ethnicity?"
Ahmed said she'll continue to feel this way as long as the hearings on radical Islam continue. And King promises there will be many more.
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