Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, N.Y., listens to a speaker at a rally in New York… (Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters )
Reporting from Sterling, Va. — — The White House took a preemptive step to defuse an emerging controversy Sunday, sending out a top aide to reassure American Muslims that the U.S. government doesn't see them as a collective threat.
Denis McDonough, deputy national security advisor to President Obama, addressed a largely Muslim audience days before congressional hearings into homegrown Islamic terrorism. The hearings, which sparked protests in New York on Sunday, will be led by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
In his speech to members of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, McDonough said, "The bottom line is this: When it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem; you're part of the solution."
Earlier Sunday, King told CNN's "State of the Union" that Al Qaeda terrorists were "attempting to recruit within the United States. People in this country are being self-radicalized."
The Obama administration is clearly worried that the hearings, which begin Thursday, could open a rift with Muslim leaders, whose cooperation is needed to foil terrorist recruitment. A message from McDonough's speech was that the Muslim community is vital to a larger strategy of preventing the radicalization of American youths.
"Our challenge, and the goal that President Obama has insisted that we also focus on, is on the front end: preventing Al Qaeda from recruiting and radicalizing people in America in the first place," McDonough said. "And we know this isn't the job of government alone. It has to be a partnership with you — the communities being targeted most directly by Al Qaeda."
Terrorist recruiters, McDonough said, look for people who feel disconnected from their community and are "perhaps struggling with their identity."
They suggest to prospective recruits that "their identities as an American and as a Muslim are somehow incompatible and that they must choose between their faith and their country," he said.
Afterward, reporters asked McDonough whether his speech was connected to King's hearings. "We welcome congressional involvement in this very important issue," he said.
King told the Associated Press that he agreed with what McDonough said and had spoken with him Friday. "I think it's a validation of everything I've been trying to do," King said. "There is a real threat. It's a serious threat."
Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society said in an interview that Congress should not "single out" any one community and that Muslim leaders were partners in defeating Islamic extremism.
"We're doing our best," he said. "We're fighting this and we're in it together."
Rizwan Jaka, a member of the society's board of trustees, said King's hearings carried the potential to marginalize Muslims.
A better approach, he said, would be one that treats Muslims as "partners, not suspects."
King, on CNN, urged the nation to watch the hearings before casting judgment.
"I think the hearing is going to be very productive. It's going to go forward, and it's going to talk about something which is not being talked about publicly, which I think should be," he said.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, also appeared on CNN.
"To say we're going to investigate a religious minority, and a particular one, I think is the wrong course of action to take," Ellison said. "I don't want them to be able to stand up and claim, you know, 'See, we told you, America is at war with Islam.' That's one of their main recruiting arguments."
Also Sunday, about 300 people turned out in Times Square to protest the hearings. Participants objected that the focus should be not on Muslims but extremists of any sort.
A smaller protest supported the hearings.
Those who opposed the hearings waved U.S. flags and held signs that read: "Today I am a Muslim too" and "Who would Jesus persecute? Islam is not my enemy."