Keith Ellison

By Pal, Amitabh | The Progressive, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Keith Ellison


Pal, Amitabh, The Progressive


Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota wears his burden lightly. The first Muslim in Congress, Ellison received glowing coverage abroad but faced some unwelcome attention at home after his election in November 2006.

The rightwing blogosphere attacked him as a radical in disguise. Talk show host Glenn Beck asked him to "prove to me that you are not working with our enemies." Conservative commentator Dennis Prager fulminated about Ellison swearing in on the Koran. (In reality, no holy books are used during the actual swearing in, with religious texts being used only during photo-op reenactments. At the reenactment, Ellison used Thomas Jefferson's Koran.) Even a couple of Ellison's colleagues derided their new associate. Representative Virgil Goode of Virginia warned in a letter to hundreds of voters that Ellison's election was a threat to the country's traditions. Representative Bill Sali of Idaho opined that having a Muslim member of Congress wasn't what the Founding Fathers had envisioned.

Ellison shrugged all of this off and quickly went to work. He advocated universal single-payer health care, opposed predatory mortgage lending, and endorsed the new GI bill and national election-day voter registration. He has been vocal about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. And he has called for President Bush's impeachment.

Born into a family of civil rights activists in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam at the age of nineteen while in college at Wayne State. After graduating from Minnesota Law School, he practiced civil rights and criminal defense law, heading a Minneapolis nonprofit called the Legal Rights Center along the way. In 2002, he was elected to the Minnesota legislature. When veteran Congressman Martin Sabo announced his retirement in 2006, Ellison jumped into the fray. After a tough multicornered primary, Ellison won with 56 percent of the vote in the general election. He is expected to comfortably win reelection.

I met Ellison for the first time in Minneapolis in June during the Free Press media reform conference. When I interviewed him in mid-August in his district office, he was his usual ebullient self. We chatted in a conference room decorated with a painting of the peace symbol and two beautiful drawings of African women.

Q: Your election two years ago as the first Muslim member of Congress got global attention. What do you see as its significance?

Keith Ellison: Well, in one sense it's important, and in another sense, it isn't. It's important because people who are not Muslim in the United States know that the Muslim community has folks who are willing to serve and participate in American society. It also signals to the Muslim community that, hey look, we need to be involved in politics, and help shape the landscape for the betterment of all.

We've broken a threshold. So now, we don't have to worry about that anymore. Everybody can just participate. And now I'm not the only member of Congress who is Muslim. Andre Carson [Democrat of Indiana] is Muslim as well.

In another sense, it's not that important because at the end of the day we all have to serve the public. We all have to deliver. Without regard to your religion, your race, your color, your ethnicity, you have to come through. Hopefully, I'll try to distinguish myself in service, not in terms of any demographic characteristic.

Q: Your election inspired some adverse reaction. How have you taken all this?

Ellison: Well, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues in Congress have been very welcoming. They understand diversity, understand pluralism, understand inclusion. But there are some who are incredibly misinformed and there are others who are literally pandering--they know better--to the worst impulses in their constituency for political gain. It doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, people who are well intentioned and of goodwill are going to prevail.

Q: Senator Obama spurned your offer to campaign for him at an Iowa mosque. …

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