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WASHINGTON - Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison will go before a House panel on homegrown Islamic terrorism later this week, but he won't be sitting with fellow members of Congress.
He'll be at the witness table.
Ellison, a Muslim whose Minneapolis district has been fertile recruitment ground for Al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, calls the GOP-led inquiry a "McCarthyistic" witch hunt that could demonize Muslims. As a star witness in the hearing, Ellison will be spotlighted nationally as the face of American Muslims.
But Ellison's spotlight is multidimensional lately. Supporting protesters from Cairo, Egypt, to Madison, Wis., he's been styling himself as an old-fashioned "power-to-the-people" activist who also carries the title Congressman.
"I'm an activist who happens to be a congressman," said Ellison, who was arrested at the Sudanese embassy two years ago to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. "Elective office is an extension of how to make a freer, safer, fairer world."
When Egyptians rose up by the thousands against Hosni Mubarak, Ellison was among the first elected officials to support his ouster. When union members filled the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker's attempts to dismantle collective bargaining, Ellison called Walker a "dictator" and sent 146 pizzas to feed those sleeping in the rotunda.
Minnesota Republicans accused him of meddling, with state GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton saying Ellison was "inserting himself into a debate where he has no place."
But Ellison's longtime allies see a welcome return of the young street activist who made a name for himself as a civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis. "He's a community organizer in the best tradition of Paul Wellstone," said Eliot Seide, executive director of the Minnesota American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Now before the House Homeland Security Committee this week, Ellison will reprise his past as an activist lawyer. This time, he'll face off against U.S. Rep. Peter King, the Long Island, N.Y., Republican and committee chairman who says he "will not allow political correctness to obscure a real and dangerous threat."
On Sunday, the White House praised U.S. Muslims for helping fight extremism, calling on them to help undermine the "twisted ideology" of Al-Qaida.
At an interfaith forum at a Virginia mosque, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said the federal government is working to dispel "misperceptions" about American Muslims. He says all Americans must come together to protect the country "in a spirit of respect, tolerance and partnership," setting the administration's tone before this week's congressional hearings.
'License for bigotry'
The Thursday hearing has touched off an ideological uproar between conservative critics of Islamist extremism and an array of faith and civil rights groups who see the inquiry as a divisive show trial.
Democrats on the committee, led by Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, want the hearing broadened to include an examination of other potential threats such as neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, right-wing militias and anti-tax groups. "Terrorists of all ideologies seek to do Americans harm," Thompson wrote in a letter to King.
King's response: The "Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 and the ongoing threat to our nation from Islamic jihad were uniquely diabolical."
But mindful of the sensitivities, King has backed away from calling some prominent witnesses popular with conservatives, including Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born scholar and Fox News analyst whom Muslim groups accuse of long-ago ties to Christian militias.
King, once a prominent supporter of the Irish Republican Army, said he would focus instead on the perspectives of American Muslims, including Ellison, whom he invited to testify after the Minnesotan brought his concerns to him personally on the House floor in December.
Family members to testify
Ellison may not be the only witness from Minnesota.
While the witness list has been a closely guarded secret, King plans to call the family members of several American Muslims who worked with radical Islamic groups.
That revelation has stirred anxiety in the Twin Cities Somali community, which was the focal point of an FBI investigation into the disappearance of some 20 youths recruited by the terrorist group Al-Shabab to go overseas.
"The only community that has had 20 young men missing, and influenced the change in the word terrorism to 'homegrown,' is Minneapolis," said Abdirizak Bihi, a grass-roots organizer whose nephew, Burhan Hassan, was among those who was recruited.
Lured back to his homeland in 2008, Hassan, 18, was dead within months, reportedly shot after refusing an order.
Bihi, who went to the FBI, said the ordeal has bred suspicion and mistrust within the Somali community.
Among those Bihi faults is Ellison. When Bihi and others grew wary of leaders at the Abu-Bakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, where some of the youths met, Ellison defended the mosque. He argued that there was no evidence that the missing youths were indoctrinated there.
Bihi said of Ellison, "He was a very good friend of mine." Bihi noted that Hassan was a volunteer on Ellison's campaign before he disappeared in November 2008. But "the way he [Ellison] approached this," Bihi said, "There was no leadership."
Ellison dismisses the criticism, saying he has worked closely with a fractured Somali community to address the problem. "You are always going to find a few people -- you can count them on one hand -- who are going to have a complaint," Ellison said. "That's just life."
Now a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus under the new Republican majority, Ellison expects to find himself increasingly in the partisan crossfire. He has been among the most active of House Democrats fighting GOP spending cuts, accusing Republicans of taking advantage of "people's pain."
Ellison has not been shy about his higher profile. But this week's hearings will push him closer to a role he has been reluctant to take on: spokesman for his adopted religion.
While his Muslim identity is "part of who I am," he said, it has never been explicitly part of his political persona.
"It's not about me sticking up for my religious group," Ellison said. "I don't believe in that. But I do feel called to stand up for religious pluralism and respect for all faiths in America."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.