Muslim Candidate Plays Defense

Keith Ellison, running in Minnesota, would be the first Muslim to serve in Congress. He has had to defend past associations with the Nation of Islam.
Keith Ellison, running in Minnesota, would be the first Muslim to serve in Congress. He has had to defend past associations with the Nation of Islam. (By David Joles -- Star Tribune)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS -- Keith Ellison is a Democrat running for an open House seat in a heavily Democratic district. But what once looked like a cakewalk has turned into a bruising campaign in which many facts are disputed but a central one is not: If he wins, he will be the first Muslim elected to Congress.

Before he can make history, Ellison must capture Tuesday's hotly contested Democratic primary in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, which consists of the Minneapolis side of the Twin Cities and an inner ring of suburbs. Whoever gets the Democratic nomination is expected to sweep to victory in November to succeed Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D), who is retiring after 28 years in the House.

Ellison, 43, is a two-term state legislator. He prays toward Mecca five times a day and says he has not eaten pork or had a drink of alcohol since he converted to Islam as a 19-year-old student at Wayne State University in Detroit. When speaking at mosques or to members of Minneapolis's large Somali immigrant population, he opens with "Salaam aleikum," Arabic for "Peace be with you."

Other than that, he seldom refers to his religion on the campaign trail, unless asked.

"I'm a Muslim. I'm proud to be a Muslim. But I'm not running as a Muslim candidate," Ellison said during a break between a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina and an appearance at a public housing project. "I'm running as a candidate who believes in peace and bringing the troops out of Iraq now. I'm running as a candidate who believes in universal, single-payer health care coverage and an increase in the minimum wage."

Despite Ellison's desire to focus on the war and the economy, questions about his faith and character have kept him on the defensive.

The most damaging accusations, says Christopher Gilbert, professor of political science at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., concern Ellison's past associations with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan.

Although four Democrats are seeking the nomination, Ellison became the candidate to beat in May, when the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor organization endorsed him.Within days, Michael Brodkorb, author of a Republican blog called, dug up two articles that Ellison had written under the name of Keith Hakim for the University of Minnesota student newspaper when he was in law school there in 1989 and 1990.

The first article defended Farrakhan against accusations of anti-Semitism. The second called affirmative action a "sneaky" form of compensation for slavery, suggesting instead that white Americans pay reparations to blacks.

Another conservative blog,, subsequently revealed that the candidate had used the names Keith X Ellison and Keith Ellison-Muhammed during his student days. In more than 20 Web postings titled "Who Is Keith Ellison?" PowerLine asserted that he had been a "local leader" of the Nation of Islam and accused him of "involvement" in anti-Semitism.

Badly stung, Ellison responded quickly. He met privately with key Jewish supporters, spoke publicly at a synagogue in the suburb of St. Louis Park and repudiated Farrakhan in a May 28 letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis.

While denying that he had ever joined -- much less led -- the Nation of Islam, he acknowledged that he had worked with the group for about 18 months to organize the Minnesota contingent to Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March in Washington.

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