AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION WITH KEITH ELLISON
March 24, 2008.
Keith Ellison, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is the first African American ever elected to the House from Minnesota. Oh, he’s also the first Muslim Congressman in history [The second Muslim American, Andre Carson, was recently elected to Congress on March 11, 2008.] By virtue of his racial and religious identity, a minority within a minority, Ellison bears the unenviable burden of representing one of the most misunderstood, feared and mistrusted identities du jour: Muslims. Ever since his election, notoriety chases Ellison often and unsubtly, most memorably after his 2006 appearance on Conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s CNN show, where the host asked Ellison point blank: “Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” With calm and patience, Ellison answered the question head on and reassured his constituents and the American public that his religious values do not compromise or lessen his patriotism.
Regardless, his critics, including those in Muslim and Right-wing circles, continue to project their doubts about not only his political credibility, but also his loyalty to both Muslims and America, respectively. Despite the controversy, in the past 2 years Ellison has emerged an influential and popular figure winning over a vastly diverse constituency in Minnesota and even gaining supporters and silencing initial skeptics across the nation.
Here is a rare and exclusive conversation with the Congressman, where he bluntly addresses a gamut of issues including his critics, Obama’s candidacy, racism in America, Muslims entering politics, the fear of Islam, the smear campaigns, and how his faith helps him become a better American and Congressman.
ALI: We’re all hearing and seeing the speech by Obama’s pastor Rev. Wright and the response by Senator Obama. Some say Obama’s “race” speech is historic, others say he is ducking the race issue. What do you think Obama’s response, as well as the fierce criticism of Wright’s speech, says about the state of racism in America today?
ELLISON: I think Obama’s speech was a transcendent speech. It actually moved us forward in the dialogue for national reconciliation. The fact is that Rev. Wright is coming from a perspective of over 200 years of slavery and 100 hundred years of Jim Crow. Also, he’s been a witness to some of the awful devastation that has happened to the South side of Chicago where his church is located. He has seen the awful human toll and how it affects the African American community. That’s the perspective he’s coming from. That perspective is obviously going to be informed by frustration and anger, and obviously he is a leader in that community and his speeches and sermons are going to reflect that frustration and anger. But, as a Presidential candidate, I think Obama is bringing us all together: helping us transcend; helping us go further.
The truth is the racial dialogue in America does need some updating. It does need a new way forward. Because so often, we are locked in a cycle of blame and shame; we are locked in a cycle of, you know, just really not getting anywhere. But, the fact is this dialogue does get us somewhere. It is not informed by anger, it is not informed by past wrongs or anything like that. But, it is informed by facts as they exist and it is informed by a need to heal and pull us forward. So, I was really impressed by Obama’s speech. I think it will go down in history.
ALI: Let’s talk about Geraldine Ferraro and other individuals who commented that Obama’s meteoric rise is due to his campaign playing the “Race card” for his benefit. What’s your thought on this “Race card” being used to help Obama – is this simple, superficial political correctness?
ELLISON: Well, it’s been used against him. In fact, his Democratic opponent has been trying to narrow his reach and appeal based on racial grounds from the beginning in my opinion. But, it just doesn’t work because he is truly a candidate that reaches out to all segments of the community. It just doesn’t work, because he truly is somebody who has the best interests and common good of all in mind. He doesn’t play old-line politics. That’s why you see him able to reach out to literally thousands of people. When he was in Minneapolis he drew 22,000 people in the Timberwolves auditorium. And the Timberwolves would’ve loved to get the numbers Obama drew on that day! He is pulling people who are senior citizens, kids, college students, and people who are middle aged, working adults. He’s pulling on Blacks, Whites, Latinos, people from Asia, South Asian background: everybody. He truly is a transcendent candidate. Now, he’s not a perfect candidate. Obviously, no one is. But, Obama is one candidate who I’ve seen that is able to reach across those issues that divide us and pull everybody in. I just think he’s phenomenal.
The fact is – before he gave that speech – I didn’t know. I was wondering if he was going to be able to deal with this challenge. It did look like the folks who were beating up his pastor were gaining ground – you know, causing doubt. But, you know what, he rose to the occasion as he has many times before.
ALI: Let’s tackle a question that has dogged you and Obama: The Muslim question. Many people say the label “Muslim” is used as a smear tactic, a Scarlet Letter of the 21st century. Do you think the fact that many people look at Obama as a Muslim and thus judge him detrimentally is a reflection of “politicking” in America or is it really reflective of an overall prejudice towards Muslims in America?
ELLISON: Well, the fact is that the people who are attacking Obama because of their incorrect belief he was Muslim were assuming that the American population is religiously bigoted, and they were trying to get political gain by appealing to that religious bigotry. But, it so happens Americans come from a long tradition of religious pluralism. We elected a Catholic President in the 1960’s. Mitt Romney’s meteoric descent is not due to his religion; it is due to his failed candidacy. In the 109th Congress, which was the one before the one I was in, there were no Muslims ever, ever before. In the 110th congress, you’ve got two. Two. [Andre Carson won the Democratic nomination for Indiana’s 7th congressional district recently.] I’m not the only one anymore. So, the fact is that America is a very tolerant country, and if you make an argument for the common good then people will support it. The funny thing about this latest flack about his Christian Minister is that it makes it pretty clear that he isn’t Muslim. (Laughs.) If anything, it can dispel that ridiculous rumor.
One thing I will say for Obama is that there was a temptation for him to strenuously and vociferously disassociate himself from being a Muslim, and he didn’t do that. He just said nope, in fact I’m not a Muslim, but there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. I actually liked the way he handled that. I think what they were trying to do was to falsely identify him as a Muslim which they thought would hurt him. Or, they were trying to get him to vehemently deny and therefore alienate millions of Muslims in America and put him in a “Can’t win” situation, but I think he’s gotten out of that one pretty well.
ALI: Let’s talk about your own personal experiences. Some are very infamous like your moment with CNN’s Glenn Beck who had you on air and pretty much straight up questioned your patriotism and loyalty to America based on his assumption or fear regarding your Islam. So, how do you confront that daily reality where you, Keith Ellison an African American and Muslim, are seen as unpatriotic based purely due to your religious beliefs? This must get frustrating.
ELLISON: Well, the thing is you have to face these kinds of challenges with patience. Quite frankly, the barrage of taking hits everyday has made me a better Muslim. I find myself returning to my faith just to be able to deal with this kind of stuff on a regular basis. The Quran says, “The struggle is ordained.” Well, certainly it is. But, we have to deal with these challenges with patience, with confidence. We cannot let one person’s bitterness turn us bitter. We have to overcome evil with good, right? That’s how you do it. You can’t overcome evil with evil. You just get more evil. My thing is to try to urge people who are Muslim and not Muslim to understand America is a country that has deep roots of tolerance and religious inclusion. My message to the Muslim community is keep on doing good works like building clinics, building literacy sessions at the masjid, work with non Muslim, fellow Americans to try to improve things. And keep putting your best foot forward, because if we start going tit-for-that with those putting out religious bigotry, then we end up just like them.
ALI: Lot of people are saying that Andre Carson’s election to Congress along with yours is a sign of the end of times: The Muslims are taking over! The Muslims are taking over!
ELLISON: (Laughs.) Two out of 435? I don’t think we’re taking over.
ALI: So, how do you respond to that fear that, look in 2 years, Muslims and immigrants are helping elect Muslim people, ethnic people, and soon enough Congress will be run by radicals?
ELLISON: (Laughs.) You know, we are elected by the majority of the people. So, if we are seeing more people of Muslim background in Congress and more people from diverse backgrounds in Congress, and we of course have a woman speaker in the House. That just means that Congress is looking more and more like America. It’s looking more and more like the rest of the country. That’s what democracy is, isn’t it?
ALI: Why the Democratic Party? Suppose you’re talking to Muslims – and you know they voted for the first time in a block for Bush in 2000; Muslims are not too savvy but we are getting there. How do you convince the Muslims that the Democratic Party is for them and for America?
ELLISON: Well, the first thing I want to say is that civic engagement is something I urge all Muslims to engage in. One of my most effective fundraisers in the state of Michigan, a brother by the name of Asad Malik, is a Republican and a dear friend of mind. He and are I are tight and good friends. My brother is a Republican, my dad is a Republican. So, I don’t want to urge the Muslim community to get locked into a political party even if it is my party. What I’d urge them to do is do good works, promote fair dealing in business, help America overcome this tremendous number of people who are uninsured and don’t have any health care insurance. I think in this time, 2008 to well into possibly 2012 and 2015, the Democratic Party offers the best opportunity to express their commitment to civil and human rights for all people. To express their commitment for health care for all, to express their commitment to economic justice for everybody, and to express their commitment for peace around the world. Republicans will probably figure this out in 5 or 6 years that embracing bigotry and promoting fear is not a good thing. I think they’ll probably figure out they will need to change their positions to attract votes. And, they’ll be offering something worthwhile as well.
But, two points. I urge the Muslim community not to get locked into one political party. And two: do good works, engage politically, and get involved: can’t change anything sitting on the sidelines. The last thing is that, for now, the Democratic Party is the best vehicle to give out good values; values of peace, values of economic equity, values of family, values of civil rights. Today, the Democratic Party is the best vehicle for that.
ALI: Some of your critics in the Muslim community say that Ellison is a charismatic self-promoter. He’s a sell out. He promotes abortion rights and gay marriage. So, how can he also be Muslim and be liberal and promote a system that engages in a post 9-11 Iraq War and pro-Israeli polices?
ELLISON: My position for people who say that is if you don’t like my position, then you get involved and offer an alternative vision for the country. I believe it is shirk; it is religiously forbidden for one Muslim to tell another Muslim he is not Muslim. Because you don’t know my heart. You don’t know what Allah has inspired me to understand. Just because you disagree with my political position, I believe it is shirk for you to tell me I’m not Muslim because you disagree. Why don’t you just disagree? Offer your position. Convince the people that you are the one who’s right. Maybe convince me that you’re the one who is right? But, I do disagree with those Muslims who try to determine for themselves who is Muslim and who is not: that’s for Allah to decide. I’m a strong opponent of this takfir–ism [One declaring another an unbeliever], you know, people who think it’s ok for them to decide who is Muslim and who is not: that’s only for Allah to decide.
On the other part, I am a person who believes in civil and human rights are for all people. I’ve never been ashamed to admit that I think America needs to have human and civil rights for all people, particularly unpopular groups. Unpopular groups like the Muslim community, unpopular groups like Latino Immigrants. Unpopular groups like the gay community. How in the world can I argue that America has to have rights for Muslims, who are unpopular, but not gays? That is a hypocritical position! I’m not asking people to embrace homosexuality. I’m saying it’s wrong and immoral to kill them, beat them, or exclude them from working. You don’t have to like them. Leave ‘em alone. Let them live their lives and let God decide if He will judge them, as He will judge us all. That’s all I’m saying.
Also, I said in terms of abortion, of course I’m not in favor of abortion. But, the question is: do I want to have police arresting women who do? The answer to that is no. I think we all have to come together as a society to prevent abortion. We need to all promote sex education, we need to promote more knowledge about the human body, we need to promote pre-natal care so women don’t feel they need to get an abortion because they fear they won’t be able to feed their other children. This is what we need to do as a society to make abortion exceedingly rare, but also, we don’t want women using coat hangers and killing themselves to abort the pregnancy. We certainly don’t want to use our police force to make arrests on these women. The question is not whether abortion is bad: I think it is bad. And let me be clear: I think abortion is wrong. But, I will also tell you I’m not ready to criminalize it, because I think it is a personal decision that people should make for themselves, but we should promote a society in which people wouldn’t have to make that choice
ALI: It sounds like you’re very passionate, Congressman. There’s a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his Companions recommending one to not try to seek leadership or positions of power. Usually, people running for Congress or the Presidency have to run on the ticket of convincing people to vote for them. So, what inspired you to run, to take this leap, to be a trailblazer knowing you’re a Black man and a Muslim running for Congress?
ELLISON: Well, you know, part of my involvement in politics is really rooted in my desire to try to promote unity among people, trying to promote unity with the Earth and creation, and trying to promote justice. That’s really the origin of my activism. We are also, as Muslims, urged to engage in shura, consultation, with what the community should do. So, I think my involvement is just to sort of try to help them do what’s best for the community and the world at large.
I do agree that ambitious pursuits of power acquisition are wrong. But, I’m not trying to accumulate power for my own sake. I’m not trying to accumulate power for my own sake. I’m trying to accumulate some power to improve the lot of all people and improve the common good. So, that’s the origin of my activism. You know, I have a family that was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. My grandfather was organizing Black voters in the 1950’s in rural Louisiana in a time that would seriously get you hung and it was dangerous to do it. My mother promoted that as well. It’s something I’ve always been associated with, and it’s a kind of thing I’ll continue to do and urge more people to do. So, that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
ALI: Can you talk about the spiritual and emotional transition of Keith Hakim [Ellison wrote columns in his law school paper as Keith Hakim in 1990] to modern day Keith Ellison?
ELLISON: The thing is the Muslim name my friends and community know me by is Keith Muhammad. And that name is still my name. It’s still what I go by; it’s still what my brothers call me. But, the thing is, from what’s on my personal birth certificate, what I’m admitted to Bar in because I’m a lawyer – the legal name is Ellison. So, I run by the name that is on my birth certificate. But, the truth is I do have a Muslim name, and I am known by my Muslim name by many of my fellow Muslims. So, there’s really no transition.
But, let me also say that it’s important to point out there are lot of people around the world who are Muslim who do not have names that are Arabic in nature. It’s not unusual at all. It’s nothing in the Quran, the Sunnah, or the hadith of Prophet Muhammad that says that if your name is a legitimate name, if it is not a bad name, if it isn’t a name promoting something wicked or evil that you have to change it. I think the essence of Islam is not about a name or a form, or anything. It’s about going beyond forms and going beyond names and getting to the essence of the fundamental and Divine unity that connects Allah with all of us – and that Allah “is.” So, it’ really not about a name. It’s really about what you do, how you behave, how you treat people, how you face adversity, and how you connect with the Divine.
ALI: You’ve traveled the world and you’ve been all over America. What’s the greatest misconception and question about Islam directed towards you? And, how do you respond in either defending your faith or affirming your faith?
ELLISON: The greatest misconception of Islam is that it is a religion of violence. That’s a very incorrect position, and I have to constantly help people understand that even though you have Muslims who may do things that are violent, it does not make Islam a violent religion. I have to tell people that Christianity and Judaism have many, many examples of people committing atrocious acts in the name of their religion but we should not judge the religion by those individuals. I have to point out on so many occasions Prophet Muhammad was attacked, abused, mistreated, and yet, he always responded with patience, often with non-violence. And when he did have to resort to warfare it was strictly defensive and designed to preserve and protect life. Whenever he could try to work it out, he always did. So, I don’t understand what some of our Muslim brothers today are thinking. Who did Muhammad ever bomb? What suicide mission did he ever order? There are no records of these things. So, that’s a misconception that I continually have to clear up.
ALI: Everyone is interested in the “conversion story.” What is it about Islam that inspired you to take that figurative and literal “leap” of faith?
ELLISON: It was really a lot about going to the masjid and seeing the Blacks, the Whites, the Latinos, the Asians, the Arabs all together – all one. The unity among the people connected in an effort to walk as one and be in harmony with God’s will. It was this unity I thought was so important. It was rational. It made sense to me. It has done a tremendous amount to help me negotiate life – quite frankly.
ALI: Do you think we’ll ever see a Muslim President of the United States of America?
ELLISON: Inshallah [God willing.]
ALI: If a Muslim becomes President, do you think he or she can ever truly make peace with their Islamic values and the burden of the duties required by the position?
ELLISON: Let me just say this. Let me say this: there’s not one single Muslim on the planet today that has walked perfectly. All of us need to do better. So, if there is a Muslim president I’m sure that individual will be forced to make compromises but, hopefully God-willing, they will continue to return to their faith and do what the faith requires and do what is expected by Allah. Do I believe that somebody will face fundamental challenges? I mean, we’re talking about human beings here! Remember, Muslims aren’t perfect. There’s a big difference between Islam and Muslims.
ALI: Will you ever run for President?
ELLISON: I have no desire to be President. When people say, “Hey, Keith, you’re gonna’ be President!” I’m like, “Hey man! I thought you liked me? I thought we were friends?” (Laughs.) I do not aspire for the Presidency. You know what I want to be? I want to be the best Congressman I can possibly be. I want to be effective. I want to encourage people to run for Office. I want to get people to come together around a common humanity, and I want them to stop focusing on false divisions. That’s what I want to do.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, journalist, writer, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at https://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com