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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)

In the letter to the council, he apologized for failing to "adequately scrutinize the positions" of Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam leaders. "They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did."

In interviews on the campaign trail last week, Ellison said his attraction to Islam in the 1980s "had a political angle to it, a reaction against status quo politics."

But he said he has stayed a Muslim, and grown in his faith, while his political outlook has moderated since he began practicing law, serving in the state legislature and raising four children with his wife, Kim, a high school math teacher who has multiple sclerosis.

When he was one of three blacks among 265 members of the University of Minnesota Law School's class of 1990, he said, "my perspective was a tunnel vision; I was mostly concerned about the welfare of the African American community."

"That was the era of [Spike Lee's film] 'Do the Right Thing,' " he continued. "Remember that? People had their black, yellow and red kufi caps on. There was higher African American consciousness. . . ."

Even in those days, Ellison added, "I never said anything that was anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic in any way." But, he said, he was slow to judge those who did.

"I chalked it up to typical mainstream press attacking African American leadership," he said. "When you're African American, there's literally no leader who is not beat up by the press. . . .

"The change of heart I had is, I did start to look more closely, and I feel that African Americans, having been victims of slavery and Jim Crow, can never justify doing the same thing to anyone else; wrong is wrong everywhere," he said.

Based on such assurances, Jewish Democratic activists have rallied around Ellison. Samuel and Sylvia Kaplan, a Minneapolis couple who are influential fundraisers, said he reminds them of the late senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). Phyllis Kahn, a fellow Democrat in the state legislature, said it is "inconceivable that he could have ever been an anti-Semite."

Mordecai Specktor, editor and publisher of the American Jewish World, Minnesota's Jewish weekly, strongly endorsed Ellison in a Sept. 1 editorial. "His association with the Million Man March -- there are some people in the Jewish community who cannot forgive him for that," Specktor said. "I decided that he had a sincere change of heart and mind."

Among Muslims, Ellison's campaign has generated excitement.

"There are millions of Muslims in this country. It shouldn't have taken this long to elect one to Congress," said Nimco Ahmed, 24, a Somali immigrant and political organizer.


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