Keith Ellison may become Congress's first Muslim

With a fast-growing U.S. population estimated around 5 million, Muslims are increasing their voice in local and national politics every year. But thus far they haven’t had one of their own in a national position of power in Congress, the Cabinet or the Supreme Court.

With a fast-growing U.S. population estimated around 5 million, Muslims are increasing their voice in local and national politics every year. But thus far they haven’t had one of their own in a national position of power in Congress, the Cabinet or the Supreme Court.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Keith Ellison took a large step toward changing that earlier this month when he won the Democratic endorsement for the seat of retiring Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.) in one of the safest Democratic districts in the country.

Ellison, a black Muslim, still faces a September primary challenge that could feature Sabo’s chief of staff, a former state Democratic party chairman. But he has already gotten closer than any other Muslim candidate in recent years and would be the first Muslim in Congress, according to several national Muslim groups.

He said that he’s not running on his religion and hasn’t thought much about what it would mean to be the first but that he sees the positives that could come from it. He would also be the first black congressman from Minnesota.

Ellison, who supports abortion rights, is calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops in Iraq because, he said, Iraqis and Americans both want them out and the war has cost too much. He disagrees with the route the House has taken on illegal immigration — turning “hardworking immigrants into felons” — and added that he supports a path to citizenship.

“I think it’s time for the United States to see a moderate Muslim voice, to see a face of Islam that is just like everybody else’s face,” Ellison said. “Perhaps it would be good for somebody who is Muslim to be in Congress, so that Muslims would feel like they are part of the body politic and that other Americans would know that we’re here to make a contribution to this country.”

Ellison is a 42-year-old two-term state representative who took the endorsement from a crowded field in surprisingly swift fashion at the 5th District’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention May 6. The district covers Minneapolis and some nearby suburbs.

Two other primary candidates skipped the convention, and Sabo Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson, whom the congressman endorsed, withdrew from the convention after being heckled and hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run in the primary. His campaign did not return phone calls.

David Schultz, a Minnesota politics expert at Hamline University in St. Paul, said Erlandson is Ellison’s top competition but will have a tough time making up lost ground.

“His strength has always been among the party leadership, if he had any strength whatsoever,” Schultz said. “And if you couldn’t get the endorsement with the party leadership, I don’t think he’s going to get it among the rank and file.”

According to the American Muslim Alliance, which supports Muslim candidates and educates Muslims about politics, four Muslims ran for Congress in 2004 — two for the Senate and two for the House. One was a Libertarian, and the other three lost in the primaries.

Overall, about 100 Muslims ran for public office in 2004, with close to half winning. One of them, a black Muslim Democratic state senator in North Carolina, is the highest-ranking Muslim elected official.

At least two others Muslims have run for the House this year, both in Texas. Republican Ahmad Hassan is a long shot running against Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) in her Houston district, and Republican Amir Omar lost a primary in the Dallas district.

Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, said getting a Muslim in Congress would be a step forward, but he emphasized that it must not be tokenism and should be part of a larger shift toward inclusion of Muslims in American politics and life.

“One person is not going to make any change, unless that victory for the individual marks the beginning of a new attitude and a new approach,” Saeed said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is at the forefront of Muslim get-out-the-vote efforts nationwide. Spokesman Corey Saylor said CAIR put together substantial efforts in Ohio and Florida in 2004 and will broaden its scope in the upcoming midterms.

He said most of the progress in getting candidates elected has been on the local level but an Ellison victory would be a breakthrough.

“I think it would be huge, no questions asked — particularly for a community that feels very much like its presence in the United States is being questioned,” Saylor said. “This would be a tremendous assertion of the fact that we’re Americans and we’re just as interested in public service as anyone else, and here’s the proof — we have somebody in Congress.”

Saylor attributed the fact that there have been no Muslims in Congress to two things: The Muslim political movement in America is in its infancy, with the first groups having started less than two decades ago, and the lasting effects of Sept. 11 and the negative perceptions about Muslims that have resulted.

Ellison, who converted to Islam when he was 19 years old at Wayne State University in Detroit, said he doesn’t think district voters are afraid to vote for a Muslim, as long as they know he’s concerned about their welfare.

“My faith informs me. My faith helps me to remember to be gentle, kind, considerate, fair, respectful,” he said. “But I don’t make my faith something that other people have to deal with.”