Carson brings Muslim voice to Intel panel

Carson brings Muslim voice to Intel panel
© Greg Nash

Rep. André Carson is becoming one to watch on Capitol Hill.

The Indiana Democrat is the first Muslim to take a seat on the House Intelligence Committee, a plum assignment that grants him access to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

While Carson, who worked in law enforcement before winning a seat in Congress in 2008, hailed his appointment as a “bold” move by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it drew a backlash online, as some conservatives questioned whether he has ties to radical Islamist groups.


Carson, who has downplayed the controversy, recently sat down with The Hill to talk about his new role, the threat of Islamic terrorism and his recent trip to Ferguson, Mo., as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.


Q: Have any of your Republican colleagues reached out about your appointment to the Intelligence Committee?

Oh, sure, many of them have. And I think that they understand this is a great thing. If you are a patriot, if you’re concerned about the security of our country, then I think you know that we live in a very diverse society, and Congress should reflect that diversity.


Q: Did any spiritual or foreign leaders get in touch with you?

I’ve heard from rabbis, pastors, of course imams and other leaders who are like, ‘Congratulations, way to go, thank you’ — because many of them know my law enforcement background.


I think when folks are forward-thinking, when folks have a true sense of what this country is about, I don’t think that they’re distracted easily by the few dissenters that are out there.


Q: One of the charges circulating is that you have taken campaign donations from groups that some conservatives say have radical ties, including the Council of American-Islamic Relations. How do you respond to that?

We received a PAC check in ’08, just as I receive checks from different groups with different interests and different agendas. I think that my positions are very clear, regardless to whom or what we get a check from.

But I’ve never affiliated with any organization that has extremist views, for that matter. ... I think that my statements are out there; my policy positions are out there; my record’s out there for the public to see.


Q: Did the criticism bother you?

I think some of it is to be expected. America, we are still a great experiment in many ways. So when people are in comfort zones, it’s difficult to get people out of their comfort zones, and as society is changing, a lot of people will not be happy with the changes that are taking place.


Q: Is that how you see your appointment, as a watermark?

Some have said that. For me ... I personally love [intelligence] work. I love keeping people safe.

I commend Leader Pelosi because that was a bold move for her to take. ... As a cop, I like boldness, because it takes boldness to fight crime, and that woman’s bold, man. I love that about her. Goodness.


Q: How much of a threat are lone wolf attacks in the U.S.? Obama administration officials have long voiced concerns about them, and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has called for more surveillance of Muslims and mosques.


Peter King and I have a great personal relationship — a lot of folks would be surprised to know that. ... He and I have some obvious disagreements, some philosophical disagreements, but personally, I have found him to be very informative and personally very thoughtful.

We have to be careful not to make blanket statements on any group. I understand, when we are living in times that are trying, I understand there is a human impulse to want to do so, but history has taught us that this impulse is not a proper reaction.

What must be done, even more than that, is the law enforcement community must develop deeper relationships with the Muslim community and Sikh community, Hindu, Jewish, so on and so forth — in a way that is not transactional, in a way that is genuine. …

Building bridges with the community is the right course of action.


Q: On Ferguson, what kind of message do you think it will send to the people there if the Department of Justice doesn’t indict Darren Wilson? 

[Editor’s note: Wilson killed teenager Michael Brown during a confrontation in August]


There will be universal disappointment. At the same time, I think their expectations have been tempered. ...

One of the takeaways we had from the experience there — we met with a lot of the faith leaders and many of the young activists — was that they’re ready for change. They want to participate in the political process. Now, more than ever, they’re excited about the school board; they’re excited about the city council; they’re excited about the state legislature; they’re excited about what’s going on in Congress.


Q: On a lighter note, last year on call with the unofficial Hip-Hop Caucus, you and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) tried to raise awareness about climate change. How did that go?

What we attempted to do was connect the hip-hop generation with this new fight against climate change.

We’re seeing tremendous results. We have folks from the entertainment community coming onboard, and we’re having college students saying, ‘Hey I want to be a part of this because I’m from the Midwest, I’m from Michigan, I’m from Wisconsin, and I actually see these changes taking place.’ It’s phenomenal. It’s shocked me.

Editor’s note: The questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.