Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Black man and the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Congress, has begun his career there, “On The Good Foot,” so to speak.
Mr. Ellison’s election in a district where only 13 percent of the voters are Black helped offset the loss of a seat in predominantly Black Memphis, Tenn. to a White Democrat, maintaining the number of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members at 43.
In addition, his first policy decision has been described as bordering on “genius.” He virtually silenced all of his racist and Islamophobic critics by outwitting them.
Although Mr. Ellison hails from what is arguably one of the most liberal Congressional districts in the country, and he considers himself a political protÃ©gÃ© of former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, in the state that gave the country Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey; when Mr. Ellison won the Democratic primary and the support of that state’s liberal Democrat-Farm-Labor Coalition, his Republican challenger–Alan Fine, who eventually won a grand total of 22 percent of the vote–attacked him for being a Muslim, alleging that he had a close association with the Hon. Min. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Mr. Ellison–whose teenaged sons are named Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and whose daughter is named Ameerah–did not disavow Min. Farrakhan as his critics demanded, and went on to win the election with 56 percent of the vote, including the support of many Jewish voters in his district.
But the condemnation of Rep. Ellison reached a fever pitch after he told an interviewer after his election that he would take his purely ceremonial and unofficial oath-of-office-photo-opportunity using a Holy Qur’an, rather than a Christian Bible. The denunciations of him were swift and fierce.
“The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district, and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the [Holy] Qur’an,” Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) wrote in a letter to his constituents in early December.
Mr. Ellison, who was born in Detroit where he was brought up Catholic (he converted to Islam in college), responded saying only that he could trace his family’s origins in this country back to 1742, and he never struck back at those who attacked him.
“We can always fight and argue and wrangle,” Mr. Ellison said on inauguration day concerning his diplomatic responses to the shrill denunciations that were made against him. “But can we take just a minute to work it out?
“The bottom line is we have big work to do and we can’t be distracted by folks who aren’t clear on the fact that we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get peace. We’ve got to cover the uninsured. We’ve got to raise the minimum wage. We’ve got to help Americans get from under this huge debt they’re dying under.”
“I don’t have time to wrangle with anybody, unless they’re opposing me on the issues. The fire can come out on those issues, but when it comes to any kind of distraction, we’re just diplomatic, so we don’t get pulled into some issues that really are not what we’re here to do.”
On inauguration day, Rep. Ellison’s genius shone through. He asked the Library of Congress, and was permitted to take his oath using the brown-leather-bound two-volume English translation of the Holy Qur’an, published in 1764, which was once owned and used by one of this country’s “Founding Fathers”–Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the U.S., and the author of the Declaration of Independence.
More than 20 prominent religious leaders rallied to support Rep. Ellison, with an online petition campaign.
“An attack against one religion is an attack against them all,” the petition reads. “Next week, it could be Jews. Next month, it could be Christian Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. Right now, it is Muslims. It is they who feel targeted by repression and abuse, and they who live among us in a growing climate of fear…
“We hold it to be self-evident that all Americans have the right to practice their faith, whatever it may be, and that any Americans–regardless of race, color or creed–may be elected and sworn into office holding whatever book they consider sacred…We would point out that there are some five million Muslims in the U.S. Many have been here for generations. They are every bit as American as Rep. Goode. Some Americans have also converted to Islam, including Rep. Ellison. We call for a renewed unity among people of conscience and of faith.”
Religious leaders and organizations backing the petition include Dr. George Hunsinger of the Princeton Theological Seminary; the Rev. Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches; Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of the Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation; the Rev. Dr. Larry L. Greenfield of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago; the Rev. Cedric A. Harmon of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Joseph C. Hough, Jr. of the Union Theological Seminary; Vincent Isner of Faithful America, a program of the National Council of the Churches of Christ USA; and the Rev. Timothy F. Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress.
Readers wishing to read the full petition and original signatories can do so at: http://http://ga3.org/campaign/reconcile.
By the way, Rep. Ellison’s freshman classmates in the House in the 110th Congress also include the first two Buddhists to serve in Congress. The rest of the class is made up of 45 Christians and six Jews. Of the Christians, there are 18 Roman Catholics, 17 Protestants, six nondenominational Christians, three Greek Orthodox Christians and one Mormon.