First Muslim in U.S. Congress Speaks on Faith and Democracy

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison is surprised that his Muslim faith became an issue during his successful campaign for a congressional seat.

“I never bring it up,” he told USINFO, although he discusses it when asked. His first impulse was to downplay religion in favor of discussing the issues, which are his priority. Now he freely discusses Islam, “because it may have the effect of building understanding. I hope it does.”

Ellison, a Democrat and the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, says he was elected for his values. “I have to continue to elevate the common good, the public interest, education, health, peace. These are the things that they want me to work on,” he said. By electing him, he said, his constituents meant, “We don’t really care what your religion is. This is what we are into, if you can promote and execute and advocate these things, you can represent us.” (See related article.)

His values derive from his Christian upbringing and Islam, which he has practiced for nearly 25 years. “The values that underlie Islam are not unique to Islam. They are shared by all faith traditions. Belief in charity, in giving to others in need and facing adversity, the belief in equality and justice - there is no religion, including Islam, that has a monopoly on these ideas,” he said.

Ellison said true Islamic values harmonize with the democratic process. “These are universal ideas. In fact, they’re not just compatible with democracy; they drive us toward a society in which there is consultation, in which there is input and approval from the populace.” He asks, “How can you have a just society where one person or only a limited set of people make the laws for their benefit and yet other people who had no role in making the law have to abide by it? That’s fundamentally unjust.”

He quoted from memory a Quranic verse, Surah 49:13: “Oh humanity, we created you from a single pair, male and female, and fashioned you into tribes and nations, so that you would know each other and get to know each other and not hate and despise each other. Surely the most honored among you is the one who is most righteous and just.”

“Now that is an English translation of the Quran which essentially affirms the equality of men and women,” he said. Diversity often brings conflict “as we engage in chauvinistic attitudes,” he said, but actually is meant to “spark our curiosity about the difference so we would get to know each other. And the differences are not so that we would find ways to oppress and degrade each other.

“[I]t doesn’t say the most honored man among you, or the most honored whites or the most honored blacks among you, or Asians or even Muslims,” he explained. “It really is an inclusive idea, the intention of the Divine for us to treat each other well, to be curious and inquiring, not to … make distinctions among each other based on sex, race, gender, tribe and things like that. And it says explicitly, in my mind, that this injunction is not only to Muslims but to all people, all humanity.”

“This is fundamental to Islam and fundamental to democracy,” he said. Likewise, he added, the Quran says religion is a matter of choice and not compulsion. “It should be free, voluntary and open.”

When mutual respect and justice are replaced by dictatorship, he said, “It just means that we are putting our desire for domination, power, money, hegemony above the Divine injunction that we should love ye one another, love your neighbor as yourself.”

African Americans long have been attracted to Islam. (See related article.)

As to why, Ellison offered, “[T]here are certain inescapable American realities to look at. People want to be affirmed in their humanity. And during Jim Crow, I think it’s fair to say it was not affirming of African-American humanity.” So-called Jim Crow laws institutionalized inequality, segregating blacks from whites, a situation the civil rights movement fought to rectify.

His Minneapolis constituency includes diverse ethnic groups, among them the largest Somali immigrant community in America, but the people who voted him into office are “overwhelmingly white and Christian,” descendants of Norwegians, Swedish and German immigrants.

When asked who has inspired him in his public service, he immediately named the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who worked to involve young people, the poor and minorities in politics. 

Although he admires Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Brown and John F. Kennedy, he said, “I never met those people.” He knew Wellstone. “I saw a real life, practical example of somebody who could combine community, grassroots activism and electoral politics,” he continued.

“I used to think if you get elected to office that you couldn’t maintain your value system. You’d get into that meat grinder and get chewed up. You’d end up something else from what you went in. But he proved it’s not true. You can do the right thing.”