Keith Ellison: First Muslim in Congress Makes His Mark

Eleven months have passed since America's first Muslim congressman -- Keith Ellison, from Minnesota's fifth district -- was elected to office. In that time he has exposed bigotry in the media and Congress, and served as a bridge for American relations with the Muslim world.

Throughout his meteoric rise from an anonymous state legislator, Ellison has had unanimous support among American Muslims. Ellison is now using that goodwill to bring a minority group that has been demonized, politically apathetic and often extremely socially conservative into the American political mainstream (and without being pushy, towards the progressive wing of the Democratic Party).

Ever since Ellison's election, much of the focus has been on the venom that greeted him. He received death threats from what he calls "some crazy right-wingers," and last November, Glenn Beck, who regularly has the lowest ratings of the various CNN commentators, brought Ellison onto his show only to ask him, "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies." Soon after, Virgil Goode, a Republican congressman from Virginia, tried to turn Ellison's election into a fear-mongering campaign, telling his constituents that, unless "the Virgil Goode position on immigration" was adopted, there would be many more Muslim lawmakers.

On the heels of these two smears came an open case of Islamophobia. Supported by radio host Dennis Prager and WorldNetDaily, members of the far-right, and some conservative bloggers argued that Ellison should not be allowed to take his congressional oath for office on the Quran.

Ellison dealt with these attacks with grace and sensibility. He told Beck that he didn't need to prove his patriotic stripes to anyone. The rebuke caught Beck off guard who clarified, absurdly, that he hadn't really wanted Ellison to prove anything. Ellison told Virgil Goode that he was an African-American who could trace his familial roots to pre-revolutionary America. As far as swearing on the Quran, Ellison clarified that no representative actually swears on any religious book -- the oath is sworn upon the Constitution, and the Bible has traditionally been used only for a photo-op afterward. Then, just to remind his critics about the legacy of religious pluralism in the United States, the Quran he used in his pictures was a 1767 edition that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Finally, after his confirmation, in a move caught on C-SPAN, Ellison offered his hand to congressman Goode.

Over the next eight months, Ellison went with Nancy Pelosi to Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as Kuwait and Iraq. Most recently, he returned from Israel-Palestine (his second trip to the troubled area). He endorsed Barack Obama, called for withdrawal from Iraq, supported impeachment against Dick Cheney, and as a former criminal defense lawyer became the co-author of a bill that would restore habeas corpus, repeal warrantless wiretapping and shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In short, Ellison had not only survived, but also arrived and, according to his field director in Minnesota, became a "rock-star" at every Democratic Party event he attended.

He has now set his eyes upon the American-Muslim community.

When it comes to political participation, American Muslims are one of the most ostracized minority groups in the United States. A large part of it has to do with the post 9/11 atmosphere, smear campaigns by pundits and the demonization of Islam upon which the war on terror and the war in Iraq have been propped. David Horowitz's Islamofascism Awareness Week is a recent example of this depressing trend.

Another part of American Muslim silence has to do with the fact that they have not always known what to stand for. On one hand, in light of their socially conservative mores -- last year's Pew Survey showed that American Muslims favor state interference in morality even more than Christian Evangelists -- they have leaned towards the Republican Party. On the other hand, in light of their liberal views on civil liberties, social justice and foreign policy, they tend to lean towards Democrats. The conundrum has caused a great deal of schizophrenic thinking in American Muslim political activism. In 2000, Muslims voted as a bloc for President Bush. In 2004, they swung to the other side, with 74 percent of their vote going towards Kerry.

Keith Ellison is out to address both of these issues -- marginalization and lack of vision -- and is doing it by educating and helping American Muslims learn to trust American political institutions.

His address to the full auditorium at the Islamic Center of Nevada discussed the example of other minority groups that went from being disenfranchised to politically involved. Naturally, his focus was on African-Americans but included references to women and Hispanics as well, emphasizing the importance of voting and voter registration to the American civic experience.

The contents of his talk to the Islamic Center consisted of a number of lessons on political participation couched in theological vocabulary that the average Muslim could understand. He appealed to the history of certain Muslim leaders who had worked together with other non-Muslim communities for the sake of the common good. He spoke about the virtues of the American Constitution, the rights enshrined under it and the consistency of American ideals with Islamic principles of social justice. He put significant focus on the issues of poverty and healthcare, and challenged the vast number of American Muslims in the healthcare profession to use their influence and position to push for universal healthcare as soon as possible.

Ellison's appeal prompted Qasim Khan, one of the leading physicians in the community, to jump on stage and make a pledge to create a national organization of Muslim doctors that would provide free healthcare coverage to underserved communities. The physician asked Ellison to join the board of directors, and in an apparent moment of amusement, Ellison responded, "I will if it is legal." What he meant, however, was that he needed to check whether congressmen could serve on the boards of private organizations.

As it stands today, there are two local Muslim clinics -- one in Los Angeles and a new one in Las Vegas -- that serve poor urban areas. The Los Angeles based UMMA Clinic received congressional recognition last year. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas-based clinic, headed by a 20-something activist and realtor, Usman Malik, currently operates on the weekends and is looking to go full-time in the near future. Having followed up with Dr. Khan since Ellison's visit, I learned that Khan took his idea to the Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago -- where Howard Dean made an appearance -- and met like-minded Muslim doctors who are interested in philanthropy and supportive of a national organization. If the venture is successful, some of the credit should go to Keith Ellison as well.

However, in his activism Ellison is coming into confrontation with some American Muslim isolationism. Before his lecture, a distinguished Arab-American businessman dressed in slacks and a starched shirt, grasped Ellison as he passed by and pulled him close.

"Let me ask you directly," said the man. "You are a Muslim, but how can you support gay marriage?"

Without the slightest hesitation, Ellison imparted the basic lesson of representative government.

"I am a politician, not an imam," he said with a smile. He explained that it was a legislator's duty to represent the views of his constituents, not to impose the mandates of his religion upon others. Then, indirectly demonstrating that there was nothing inconsistent in his views in politics and his Islamic faith, he joined the sun-down prayer in the hall, standing, despite being the guest of honor, in the last row, considered by Muslims to be a mark of humility.

Evidence that Ellison's views are resonating with American-Muslim communities can be gleaned from an episode that occurred late into his speech.

A man at the back of the lecture dressed in traditional dress stood up and began scolding Ellison. "You have undermined my faith," said the protestor. "When you take an oath on the U.S. Constitution, you make a mockery of Islam!" It was the typical argument of certain Muslim fundamentalists who believe that Islam is incompatible with democratic pluralism. Calmly, the congressman reminded the protestor that his conscience was his own to dictate and he found the Islamic ideals of justice and equity clearly present in the American Constitution. The direct response silenced the fundamentalist protestor.

And in support of Ellison, the crowd burst into raucous applause.

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