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Profile of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the First Muslim Elected to Congress
Obama's use of Ellison for international diplomacy was only a little subtler than that of George W. Bush's State Department, which published no fewer than four interviews with Ellison for dissemination to foreign audiences, to demonstrate this country's diversity and religious freedom.
"I wasn't particularly flattered or gratified," Ellison says of the unexpected shout-out from Obama. "I just thought: Well, hey, if something I did can help you open a door with the Muslim world, then I'm happy to have done that."
He patiently indulges the fascination with his standing as the first Muslim elected to Congress. (Now there are two: André Carson, a Democrat from Indianapolis, was elected to the House last year.) The curse of being first is that it can swallow your identity. When people compare him to Jackie Robinson, Ellison says he expects Robinson mainly wanted to play good baseball. Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court, face similar challenges.
"I don't get tired of talking about it," Ellison says. "But my struggle is to maintain a certain amount of breadth. I don't want to be pigeonholed as only understanding Muslim things, all things Islamic."
All the same, he adds: "But look, here's the fact: Eight years after 9/11, so much of the conflict America faces concerns things occurring in the Muslim world. If my knowledge of the faith and sensitivity to the issues concerning the faith helps make friends for America and shortens gaps between us, why wouldn't I use that?"
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Raised Catholic in Detroit, the son of a psychiatrist and a social worker, he converted to Islam at 19 while a student at Wayne State University. Nothing specific precipitated his conversion, he says. He is a Sunni Muslim. He does not eat pork or drink alcohol. He prays five times a day. He is not a member of a mosque in Washington, but if he's in town for Friday prayers, he joins Muslim Hill staffers in a room in the Capitol.
He and his wife, Kim, have four children.
He got his law degree from the University of Minnesota, but after three years at a firm in a Minneapolis skyscraper, "I was called to do social justice," he says.
In his early years as a community activist, he viewed politicians as interchangeable objects upon which activists had to act to create change. The example of Paul Wellstone, the late liberal senator from Minnesota, made him reconsider. "You needed people in office who really did vibrate sympathetically with what the people needed," Ellison says. "Paul Wellstone helped me see somebody in action trying to make the world better for working people, people of color, everybody who's in the so-called out crowd."
After two terms in the state legislature, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party -- Minnesota's Democratic Party -- endorsed him for an open House seat. But there followed revelations from his past of late filings of income taxes and campaign finance reports, unpaid moving violations and parking tickets. Most damaging were claims that he was associated with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
Ellison said he had never been a member but had spent 18 months organizing a Minnesota contingent to the 1995 Million Man March. He wrote a letter of apology to the Jewish community for failing to "adequately scrutinize" some positions of the Nation of Islam. "They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did." Many in the Jewish community accepted the apology, and he was endorsed by a Jewish weekly paper.