Q&A: First Muslim Rep. in Congress

Keith Ellison discusses his position as America’s first Islamic House member on Capitol Hill, his views on faith and his agenda for the new session.

Jan. 4, 2007 – Keith Ellison, 43, a Democrat from Minneapolis, was sworn in today as the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress. In this interview with NEWSWEEK’s Michael Isikoff, Ellison talked about his decision to use a Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson for the ceremony, the recent controversy generated by Republican congressman Virgil Goode’s letter suggesting that Muslims should not be elected to Congress and how Ellison plans to practice his faith€”including making a pilgrimage to Mecca€”while serving in the House.

NEWSWEEK: Your swearing in is historic in some senses. How did you come up with the idea of being sworn in with a Qur’an owned by Thomas Jefferson?
Keith Ellison: An individual wrote a letter to the office … It was like, “Wow, isn’t that interesting? Here’s a book that was owned by Thomas Jefferson, a towering figure of American democracy” … Clearly [Jefferson] thought it contained information that he wanted to know about €¦ It just demonstrates that at the very earliest moments of this country, religious tolerance was a principle that one of the Founding Fathers was relying on.

Some might say it’s a pretty effective rebuke to the comments of Virgil Goode from Virginia. What was your personal reaction to Goode’s comments?
If you look at exactly what he said, he wrote in [his letter to constituents] that if we don’t restrict immigration policy, there will be more Muslims here demanding to use the Qur’an, and that will swamp our resources. There has always been this strain in our society where people [wanted] to carve people out of the body politic. That might be immigrants, that might be GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community members, it could be Muslims. In 1941, it was the Japanese. The fundamental argument is fear … and I reject that as a political philosophy.

Our adversaries in the war on terror are predominantly fundamentalist Muslims who don’t practice a politics of inclusion. That’s a core reason for the conflict in the war on terror.
So do we want to be just like them? The reality is Muslims around the world don’t subscribe to extremist views and oppose them. We can’t build a policy around some extreme criminal nut cases.

As the first Muslim in Congress, some people have compared you to Jackie Robinson.
I thought that was funny. I don’t see myself as a historic figure … But then again, let’s look at that analogy for a minute. What was Jackie Robinson worried about? Getting a hit, right? He was trying to get on base, right? I feel a tremendous need to perform well for the district, apart from any kind of “first” stuff. I feel a tremendous need and urgency to be effective for constituents. And that is my overriding concern.

But you realize people are looking to you to be more than that?
Well, you know, I could do a whole lot more good just by being a good congressman than trying to be a symbol or a spokesman for a whole faith.

During the campaign, you took a lot of attacks about your past, about your membership in the Nation of Islam.
That was never true, by the way.

I thought you were a member of the Nation of Islam and wrote some articles defending [its leader] Louis Farrakhan.
In the ’80s, when I was a college student, yeah, I wrote some articles. And also, I was actively involved in the Million Man March effort [organized by Farrakhan in 1995] … Rosa Parks went to the Million Man March. So did Jack Kemp, and so did about 2 million other people €¦ But no, I’m a Sunni Muslim and have been since I was 19 years old, and I’ve never been a part of any other sect, including the Nation of Islam.

How did you come to Islam in the first place?
That is something I always decline to go into … How does a person truly understand their own religious conversion? I had no Saul [on the road to] Damascus kind of religious experience. It is sort of a personal thing, and [I’m] not really sure how to explain it in a way that even makes sense to me.

I realize this is not the greatest forum to discuss one’s personal religious views. But obviously, in this context, people want to know.
I’ll tell you this much. When I walked into the Muslim student union [at Detroit’s Wayne State University] I was very impressed how well represented all the peoples of the world were in the room. You had people who were Caucasian, you had them African, you had them South Asian, you had Latino and you had people who looked like they might have been Chinese. And they were all there€”and I was impressed by that … It seemed like something that was good at unifying people. And that’s what set me down this path.

I’ve read that you’re devout. You pray five times a day. You will plan on continuing to do that in the House?

Where? In your office?
If that’s where I happen to be … I’m not one trying to call attention to myself.

Do you plan to go to Mecca?

I don’t know. The hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] just ended. There’s something called umrah, which is making hajj outside of hajj season. So I could do that. I’m trying to find time to go. You know they got us in here five out of seven days a week.

Sen. Barbara Boxer recently rescinded an award to somebody in her state because of the person’s relations with the Council on American Islam Relations [CAIR, a Muslim civil-rights organization]. She expressed some concerns that CAIR was an extremist organization and had not distanced itself from [the Palestinian group] Hamas. You have been very associated with CAIR. You gave a video presentation at their recent fund-raising dinner … There have been allegations from some that you are CAIR’s congressman?


Islam’s flawed spokesmen: “Some of the groups claiming to speak for American Muslims find it impossible to speak out against terrorist groups.” […]

Nothing has come to my attention that has made me wary or afraid of [CAIR]….

Are you at all concerned that people will try to use you?
I’m sure they will. I’m sure they will try to do a lot of things. But it’s up to me to control my own activities. I don’t think it’s right to exclude the Muslim community from participating in American politics simply because somebody has made some allegation.

What committees are you going to be on?
I’m going to be on the Financial Services Committee. I asked for Financial Services first because I’m really interested in helping to deal with the everyday aspects of trying to make it in America today. That means mortgages. That means tremendous debt load so many American are up under. Also, the committee’s jurisdiction is housing, and I’d like to see poor folks to have somewhere to live.

Do you want to be involved in foreign affairs or law-enforcement issues that would affect Muslims across the country?
Sure I do. But I can work on those things without being on the committee … I’m concerned about illegal domestic spying, I’m concerned about the use of torture. I’m concerned about denying individuals the right to challenge their detention. These are all important issues to me.

Racial and religious profiling?
Certainly that. Absolutely.

I think we got to get out of there.

How quickly?

Right away. I think we need to say, “Brave young Americans have done everything they’ve been asked to do and we should not continue put their lives at risk in what is fundamentally a civil war.”

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Newsweek Online, USA
Jan. 4, 2007
Michael Isikoff

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This post was last updated: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 4:19 AM, Central European Time (CET)