New York religious leaders and a legendary hip hop figure lead a rally Sunday to defend American Muslims from what they described as Islamophobia in upcoming congressional hearings.
Several hundred people turned out under heavy rain in New York's Times Square protesting the planned hearings on the danger of radicalization among American Muslims.
"I am a Muslim but I love this country as much as any Christian or Jew loves his country," Imam Shamsi Ali, head of the New York Islamic Cultural Center, told the crowd from a stage draped in a huge Stars and Stripes.
Participants waved flags and placards decrying what protesters said amounted to a collective attack on Muslims.
"No to Anti-Muslim Bigotry and War!" one placard read.
Although the rally was small, the high-profile site and the diverse list of speakers were intended as a rebuke to Republican Congressman Peter King, who heads the Committee on Homeland Security hosting the hearings, starting Thursday in Washington.
King says his probe is legitimate given that most serious terrorist threats in the country have been linked to Islamic groups, including a growing number involving Muslim US citizens.
The protest began with the singing of the US national anthem by Anam Chaudhry, a 17-year-old opera student and Pakistani immigrant who pointedly wrapped herself in an American flag.
"I'm not some sort of alien. I'm like everyone else," she told AFP after performing. "It's a shame some people can't see that. But we come in peace."
Russell Simmons, a music and fashion entrepreneur who helped pioneer hip-hop, said that blanket suspicion of Muslims in the United States was no different to waves of xenophobia and racism in the past.
"It's our job to stand up and protect them because if they go, we're next -- blacks, Jews," Simmons said.
Several speakers, who included Christian pastors, imams and rabbis, noted that Times Square was the site of a major bomb scare last year, but that while the would-be bomber was Muslim, so was the citizen who alerted police.
"He was a Muslim from Senegal," said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a prominent inter-faith leader who has run into fiery opposition over his idea for an Islamic cultural center near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York.
"The real battleground is not between America and Islam," he said. "It's between extremists in Islam, extremists in America."
Marc Schneier, a well-known rabbi, told the crowd that "American Muslims are as fully American as any other faith community and to hold hearings and not to invite other faith leaders to testify on behalf of the American Muslim community -- that is an injustice."
"The underlying premise of these hearings will stigmatize American Muslims," he said.
King has drawn heavy fire since announcing the hearings.
But he defended himself Sunday on CNN, saying "there is an effort to radicalize efforts within the Muslim community."
He stressed that Americans inspired by Al-Qaeda pose a unique threat to public safety, more so than right-wing extremists opposed to President Barack Obama or left-wing environmentalists.
"We're talking about the affiliates of Al-Qaeda who have been radicalizing, and there's been self-radicalization going on within the Muslim community, within a very small minority, but it's there," said King, hinting that violence by those extremists was not equivalent to that of others.
US Attorney General Eric Holder "is not saying he's staying awake at night because of what's coming from anti-abortion demonstrators or coming from environmental extremists or from neo-Nazis. It's the radicalization right now in the Muslim community," King added.
Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, disagreed with the premise of the Republican's move and called for an "alternative view."
"I challenge the basic premise of the hearings," he added.
Ellison welcomed a congressional investigation into radicalization, but said that looking only at Islam is like looking into organized crime and talking only about the Russian community or focusing on Irish gangs alone.
"I just think it doesn't make sense to narrow in on a discrete insular group that has already been the target of a certain amount of discrimination," he said.
© AFP 2013