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Jewish Journal

Q & A with Congressman Keith Ellison

by Brad A. Greenberg

December 20, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)

Keith Ellison's congressional campaign was not for the thin skinned. But despite attacks that tried to link him to Islamic extremists, Ellison won the election and on Jan. 4, 2007, became the first Muslim member of Congress -- and even that was filled with controversy, when he decided to take his oath of office photo-ops with the Quran instead of the Bible.

As the 2008 presidential race heats up, Ellison (D-Minn.) talked about the burden he feels being American Muslims' de facto representative on Capitol Hill, about why civil liberties are a core election issue for them and about Israel's prospects for peace.

Jewish Journal: You first serve the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota, not your personal religious beliefs. Correct?

Keith Ellison: Yeah, obviously. There are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, and I can't possibly even begin to imagine what all of them want. And it's not my job to worry about what they want. Now, the fact is the Fifth Congressional District does have Muslims in it, and they are my constituents, and I do need to listen to what they want. But I also have constituents who are Christian, who are Buddhist, who are Jewish, who are Sikh, have no faith at all, don't practice any religion, and I have to put that all in the mix and try to pursue the common good.

JJ: You must feel some kind of burden being the first Muslim elected to Congress.

KE: I wish I could tell you that I did. But I just don't. I just don't. I just don't accept it.

JJ: What did you think when Dennis Prager, among other people, criticized your decision to take the oath on the Quran, saying, "The act undermines American civilization?"

KE: I chalked that up to him trying to increase ratings. The people who complain about what I swore in on and what others did, too, these people are poor students of American history. In the United States Constitution, not only does the First Amendment say there is no state religion, but it also says later on in Article Six that there is no religious test for service in public office. It says it in the Constitution. No religious test.

JJ: Forty-five percent of Americans in a Fox News poll earlier this year said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate; John McCain a few months ago said the same. How far along do you think American Muslims are, and how long until we see a greater presence?

KE: Like every other ethnic group or every other religious group in American society, people need to get engaged and get active. America in many ways has been a recurring expansion of participation and inclusion.

A lot of Muslims today are very concerned about civil rights in America as it relates to Muslims -- things like rendition, things like immigration detention centers, things like the FBI visits to every foreign-born Muslim in America after 2001, things like watch lists in the airports. Maybe there are some people who truly need to be focused on, but because we have this broad prophylactic, you catch a lot of people who didn't do nothing but go on a business trip.

It's also important to note that in a Pew Research poll, 71 percent of Muslims said if you work hard in America, you can make it, whereas only 64 percent of the general population would report that level of optimism. You've got people who love their country, are glad to be in America, feel like America is a great country, but also in this post-Sept. 11 world feel like they are the scapegoated group.

JJ: You've taken two trips to Israel in the past half-year. What is your impression of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

KE: A lot of hard work, but peace is possible. Look at Annapolis. We had all the Arab countries at the table, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, they all came. He is trying to use it as a litmus test for faithfulness and piety, and they still came. That is a very positive development.

This is a situation that cries out for leadership. The Bush administration, which I disagree with on 99 percent of everything, was right to call this conference and deserves credit for it. And yet there are people right here in this Congress that would say, "Oh, he's just trying to get a legacy." I'm like, well, maybe he is, but it would be a great legacy, wouldn't it? What do you want: to score political points against the president or have peace? I'm for peace. I don't care if Bush gets credit for it.

It cries out for a Mandela-like figure; it cries out for a great statesmen or women at this time. I'm hoping we have somebody in the next round who would be able to finish the work. I get the impression a year may not be enough time.

-- BG

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