Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, presents to his co-religionists in the U.S. important political and moral realities.
AS the Democratic Party took control of the United States House of Representatives on January 4, history was made on several fronts. Not only is this the first time that the U.S. House of Representatives is being led by a female Speaker, but it is also the first time that a Muslim has been elected to Congress. Coming at a time when Islamphobia is on the rise (a recent Gallup poll cited that 39 per cent of Americans were in favour of requiring Muslims to carry special identity cards), the election of Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota's Fifth District, is for many American Muslims the welcome respite from unwarranted scrutiny and baseless suspicion that they have been hoping for since the disastrous events of 9/11.
In a country barely recovering from the domination of Christian conservatives in both the House and the Senate, the election of Ellison has not been without controversy. At the forefront of the hullabaloo has been the Congressman's request to be sworn in on a Koran rather than the customary Bible offered to members during their private oath-taking ceremonies. While Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the use of any religious test as a qualification for public office and no religious texts are used in the formal swearing-in ceremony in the House, Ellison's request put his Muslim faith at the centre of a heated political debate. Especially irked were the stalwarts of the religious Right, who, already peeved at watching the Democrats take control of the House, jumped on the issue. One of them, Republican Congressman Virgil Goode from Virginia, penned a nasty letter stating that without immigration reform "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran". Dennis Prager, a conservative radio talk show host, even went so far as to say that Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress if he refused to take the oath on the Bible since that was the traditional text used in such ceremonies.
However, in the end, the constitutional provisions that specifically prevent such forms of religious discrimination in any form of public service won out. In a worthy retort to the misguided appeals to tradition bandied about by Christian conservatives such as Goode, Ellison was sworn in on a Koran owned by none other than the American founding father Thomas Jefferson. The history around this rare edition of the Koran, which was walked over from the Library of Congress across the street specifically for the 10-minute ceremony, made Ellison's election a testament to the long-standing American tradition of religious diversity. This simple fact, as affirmed by many commentators in newspapers across the U.S., went further in establishing the diversity of American religious experience than many a concocted public relations effort. As stated by Ellison's own mother, herself a practising Catholic, the controversy over her son's election was good because "many people are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about".
The aftermath of Ellison's oath-taking ceremony was an equally hopeful indication that Ellison's election and swearing in on the Koran may have opened a new chapter in reconfiguring the understanding of Islam within the American populace. Most notably, Ellison himself presents a picture of Islam as a religion deeply rooted in the American heartland rather than as simply an import brought to the land through the hands of immigrants from South Asia and West Asia. Ellison was born in Detroit, Michigan and can trace his family history back to the mid-1700s. His grandfather was a notable civil rights activist in the Deep South. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Ellison converted to Islam at the age of 19 while in college at Wayne State University in Detroit, from where he went on to law school at the University of Minnesota. In the years leading up to his campaign for Congress, Ellison had a long-standing record of public service, serving in the Minnesota legislature and championing causes that improved the plight of the urban poor. Ideologically, Ellison cites "family faith and a need to work for social justice and the common good" as his guiding principles. In a recent column in The Washington Post, he decried the aspect of religious faith that promotes exclusivity. Citing an example of a typical religious service, he touted the beauty of faith that preaches love and condemned the aspect that teaches that "God loves you but only you and people like you". This exclusive aspect of faith, borne out of the myth of scarcity that elevates some above others, is in Ellison's view what prevents mankind from uniting against the scourges of poverty and injustice.
Soon after Ellison was sworn into Congress, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), America's largest umbrella Muslim organisation, issued a statement entitled "ISNA salutes Keith Ellison". Both the timing and the content of the statement bear clues regarding some hesitance on the part of the American Muslim community to claim Ellison as a worthy poster boy. Muslim organisations such as the ISNA and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are notably absent from the Congressman's website, which lists endorsements from other organisations such as American Jewish World and the Arab American Leadership. It is thus also interesting to note that the ISNA's statement of support did not emerge until the controversy regarding Ellison's use of the Koran landed at the forefront of media coverage of the newly elected Democratic Congress. It could be speculated, thus, that Ellison was "claimed" by Muslim organisations not during his campaign but only when his Muslim identity came to the forefront during the controversy over the oath-taking ceremony. Perhaps understandable in terms of claimi ng an increasingly rare pro-Muslim media moment, the timing surrounding the issue bears clues regarding the discomfort of some Muslim organisations on Ellison's decidedly liberal politics.
The content of the statement issued by the ISNA further substantiates the moral and political reckoning imposed on American Muslims by Ellison's election. While mentioning Ellison's support for vagrancy laws, homelessness outreach and increasing the minimum wage, the statement omits any mention of Ellison's consistent support of abortion rights and his long-standing efforts to prevent the passage of Bills banning gay marriage in Minnesota. It also omits mention of the fact that Ellison considers "Hamas to be the greatest impediment to peace in the Middle East [West Asia]". Put together, the timing and content of the ISNA's statement portend the initiation of a much needed debate in the American Muslim community regarding the compatibility of progressive liberal values espoused by the pro-minority Democratic Party and Islamic teachings.
The origins of the debate are based in the ideological positions of the two parties that dominate American politics. Historically, many American Muslims, being moral conservatives, have been supporters of the Republican Party. Sharing many of the value-based politicking of Christian religious conservatives, such as the establishment of faith-based schools, the allowance of religion-based symbols in public places, the banning of gay marriage and abortion, many Muslims have found the Republican political platform politically and morally appealing. In addition, the economic demographics of the American Muslim community, the fact that they are among the wealthiest minorities in the U.S., has further drawn them to traditional Republican positions on low taxation and fiscal incentives for the wealthy. Indeed, during the 2000 elections most American Muslims supported the election of George W. Bush.
September 11, 2001, changed this relationship of convenience and affinity. With the evolution of the neoconservative agenda for war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the passage of laws such as the U.S.A. Patriot Act, American Muslims got increasingly distanced from the Republican Party. The increased profiling of American Muslims and the surveillance and scrutiny of Muslim American organisations further widened this political gap. In this year's Congressional election, American Muslims, whetted by footage of thousands of Muslims dying in Iraq, of American Muslims being discriminated against when praying at airports, and of mass detentions of South Asian and West Asian Muslims on immigration charges, were heavily inclined to vote Democrat. However, while the Democratic Party does support a withdrawal from Iraq, its positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion are often dissimilar from the conservative positions of many American Muslims. This leaves American Muslims with the untenable question of reconciling the compatibility of being Muslim and supporting gay rights and abortion.
One useful way to analyse Keith Ellison's election is to perceive it as a reflection of what kind of American Muslim is palatable or, indeed, popular enough to win a Congressional race in the U.S.. In this sense, Ellison's philosophy of inclusiveness bears not only philosophical insights worthy of emulation but political lessons that could be invaluable for American Muslims. Despite being a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, Ellison has used his faith as a means not to exclude or ratify the hatred of certain groups such as homosexuals but to embrace them and forge coalitions based on the fact that he too, like them, is a numerical minority in the U.S. Placing social justice and the eradication of poverty highest on his list of goals, he simply asks: "Would a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage help us welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick or visit those in prison?" In holding positions such as these, Ellison has used his racial and religious identity to forge coalitions with underserved and under-represented groups. Admittedly, this necessitates a refusal to get caught up in religious dogma that might prevent such ideologically venerable and politically expedient coalition building. Undeterred by the possibility that dogmatic prohibitions might suggest that only injustice against some groups is worthy of protest, his politics holds that injustice is an evil in itself that must be contested regardless of whom it victimises. In other words, Ellison's position represents a take on Islam that focusses on the primacy of social justice and the eternal and intrinsic evil of discrimination in any form.
In interviews since his admission to Congress, Ellison has repeatedly avowed his commitment to the U.S. Constitution to detract from critics who insisted that as a Muslim he could never give ideological supremacy to a man-made text over the Koran and the Sharia. In doing so, Ellison has constructed the relationship between being an American and being Muslim as a symbiotic combination where the latter is just one, albeit a crucially important, facet of identity. In so doing, Ellison presents to American Muslims important political and moral realities: the imperative that as members of a minority group it is incumbent on American Muslims to decry all forms of discrimination and the malleability and potential of faith to be a force of inclusion rather than dogmatically endorsed condemnation. While difficult for some American Muslims to digest, these lessons, whose urgency is pronounced by the nightmarishly divisive and discriminatory policies of the Bush administration, can impress upon many American Muslims the fact that it is indeed possible to be both liberal and Muslim.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney currently completing her Ph.D. at Indiana University.