Election 2008

Rep. Keith Ellison on the Ugly Attacks Obama Has Faced in the Election

The first Muslim in Congress, no stranger to the prejudice and fearmongering leveled at Obama, explains why these attacks ultimately fail.
On Nov. 7, 2006, Rep. Keith Ellison became the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Running on an anti-war platform and with a strong progressive voice on civil rights, unions and health care, Ellison won the seat vacated by Democrat Martin Sabo, who announced his retirement after 28 years. Representative of Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, which covers Minneapolis, Ellison is also the state's first African-American congressman.

As an actual American Muslim, Ellison is no stranger to the kind of prejudice and fearmongering that has been leveled at Barack Obama since he began his run for the White House, particularly his being maligned for being a Muslim (as if that in itself were proof of moral turpitude), and including claims that he is in cahoots with terrorists. But neither has it defined his political career. "You know what's funny," he says, "I was in the state house for four years. I converted to Islam when I was 19, and I'm 45 now. I was elected to the state house at the age of 39 -- and nobody cared. It was not a big deal. It was pretty well known (that I was a Muslim), but it just wasn't an issue."

"And," he adds, "I got elected post-9/11."

Things changed when Ellison decided to seek national office. "When I ran for Congress, that's when it sort of exploded," he says. "That's when it was a big deal; it was a huge issue -- and I was somewhat surprised." During the primaries, he had been criticized for things like unpaid parking tickets. But once he won the Democratic nomination, the attacks got uglier. Among the propaganda was a leaflet produced by his Republican opponent, who, as Ellison recalls, "sent out 110,000 pieces of literature saying that I cavorted with terrorist sympathizers."

"One of my opponents accused me of anti-Semitism for no other reason other than because I'm a Muslim," he says.

That opponent was Republican Alan Fine, who, on the day after Ellison became the Democratic nominee, decried what he described as his opponents' past associations with the Nation of Islam -- a claim chiefly based on Ellison's role in organizing a local coalition to attend the Million Man march in Washington, D.C., in 1995. "I am personally offended as a Jew that we have a candidate like this running for U.S. Congress," Fine said in a press conference on Sept. 13.

"But you know, despite all those efforts," says Ellison, I got the endorsement of the (Minnesota paper) American Jewish World, and I got a lot of support throughout the entire community. So it didn't work."

Ellison believes that Americans are more tolerant of religious diversity than this or the more recent fearmongering against Obama would suggest. "A lot of this religious intolerance stuff ultimately proves not to be successful. The people who want to perpetuate fear don't really comprehend how freedom to practice religious faith is ingrained in American culture." He sites the story of the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution -- a cornerstone of American identity -- as one example.

"You look at Thomas Jefferson's writings -- he wrote a lot about freedom of religion," he says. Indeed, at his inauguration, when Ellison chose to be sworn in on the Quran rather than the Bible -- launching a tidal wave of controversy among right-wing pundits -- he did so holding a copy of the book of Islam that once belonged to the author of the Declaration of Independence, on loan from the rare books collection of the Library of Congress.

Nonetheless, the same right-wing media outlets that have used bigotry and lies to smear Obama treated Ellison like a potential one-man terror cell following his election in 2006. In an interview with Glenn Beck on Nov. 14, the CNN anchor told him, "I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'" ("I'm not accusing you of being an enemy," he went on, "but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.") Like Obama, Ellison was forced to reassert his patriotism, again.

Ellison has been critical of the Obama campaign's response to the anti-Muslim smears against him. "A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim," Ellison told the New York Times in June. Ellison, whose own congressional campaign shared themes of unity and hope with Obama's, says that when it comes to Muslim voters, his campaign represents a "missed opportunity."

Take the fact that, despite many invitations -- and in contrast to his many appearances at churches and synagogues -- Obama has not visited Muslims in their place of worship. "It's true that he has not gone to any mosques," says Ellison. "It is also true that McCain has not visited any mosques." And while some would rationalize that given the political climate, this is understandable, Ellison says, "just because something is understandable doesn't mean that it's not a mistake. This is one of those situations. Either candidate could successfully engage in Muslim communities without any political repercussions."

The campaigns obviously feel differently. At a campaign event in Detroit this past summer, two Muslim women wearing hijabs were asked not to sit behind the podium where Obama was to speak. The explanation, according to one of the women's friends, was that "because of the political climate and what's going on in the world and what's going on with Muslim Americans," it would not be good for such imagery to be part of the backdrop. Such brute honesty was a stinging betrayal of the idealism that attracted them to the rally in the first place. "I was coming to support him," Hebba Aref, 25, told the Politico, "and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to."

"The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters."

A few days after the incident, Ellison confronted Obama at a closed-door meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. Afterward, Obama called the two women to apologize. "I know," says Ellison, "because I'm the one who gave him their telephone numbers." Obama's apology must have felt genuine; according to Ellison, "one of them now works for the campaign."

While the racism and anti-Muslim sentiment unearthed by the presidential race has been disturbing, Ellison does not see it succeeding in discouraging American Muslims from getting politically involved. "I am the first Muslim congressman," says Ellison, "and I have hit every Muslim community across this nation. And I can say that the effect of the smear campaign against the Muslim community has been to enliven it."

"The Muslim community across the nation is registered to vote, is running for office, is civically engaged. In my view (this) is a rising political force." And, "while I think that most Muslims will vote for Obama, they have also really learned their lesson: that most politicians make decisions based on a political calculus that doesn't always fit with what is good and just and moral. In many ways, I think the Muslim community learned that political power emerges from an independent base and that the community should not attach itself to a rising political figure."

And while there may be a long way to go, Ellison cites Congress's resolution in recognition of Ramadan, as well as the first-ever Muslim Democratic Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer, as proof that Muslims are becoming a part of the political fabric in this country.

Ellison himself is up for re-election next week, but given his wide popularity, he is expected to keep his seat for the foreseeable future. Looking forward, as the country appears poised to elect Barack Obama the first black president, Ellison is optimistic about what it means for the country.

"I think it's going to open up opportunities for people of color. But I also think it's going to help white Americans understand that talent has nothing to do with a person's pigmentation; that anybody and everybody can perform well and serve the country well. I think there will be a profound impact on the white community. It'll be a lot tougher to say, 'I assume you're not as smart as me' when the president is black. What we'll see is that Americans will accept each other for what they can do and not what we look like.

"The country will be better served in the long run when we don't confine opportunity based to certain segments."
Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer.
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