Amid scenes of emotion and anger, Peter King, chairman of the US Homeland Security Committee, opened hearings into what he calls the radicalisation of Islam in America.
The Republican representative from New York — who has been flayed in the press for past ties with Sinn Fein — opened the hearings by dismissing critics who had dubbed the sentiments racist.
Mr King said opposition to the hearings had verged on “paroxysms of rage and hysteria”.
Among the first witnesses called to testify was Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman from Minnesota, who castigated Mr King.
He broke down recalling a Muslim-American student who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers nearly 10 years ago. The young man, he said, through gasping sobs, had “given everything for his fellow Americans”.
Mr King attracted the accusation that he and witnesses he has called, including Dr Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, were querying the loyalty of every Muslim American to their country.
Critics say it is reminiscent of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy's pursuit of Communists in the United States.
“This is a historic event, but historic in a negative way,” said Zak Dehlawi (24), a Saudi-American who travelled from Baltimore to sit in the public gallery.
A defiant Mr King insisted the hearings “must go forward”, be
cause “to back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness”. He showed a chart of attempted terror attacks on US soil in recent years.
Faced with charges that his |past as a supporter of the IRA disqualified him from terror issues, he said comparisons between the IRA and al-Qaida were misplaced.
“I understand why people who are misinformed might see a |parallel,” he said. “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”
In 1982, as a local politician |on Long Island, he exhorted fellow Irish-Americans to “support |those brave men and women |who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism”.