A Publics Figure
Congress's First Elected Muslim Is Emblematic of Many Things, Depending on Group Needing a Symbol

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Keith Ellison is what he is -- the first Muslim elected to Congress, the first African American to represent Minnesota -- while trying not to be too much of what he is. But not too little, either.

Quietly devout, he unrolls his prayer rug in the privacy of his office in the Longworth House Office Building, facing the corner beyond which lies Mecca -- but that is still too Muslim for some.

Antiwar, he once voted for an Iraq war-funding bill because it had a timetable for withdrawal -- but that was not dovish enough for some protesters who subsequently held a sit-in at his Minneapolis office.

More than two years after he came to Washington, the idea of Keith Ellison, the symbol of Keith Ellison, remains potently useful to various agendas. President Obama seized on it last month, during his address from Cairo University to the world Muslim community. In the president's list of examples of how "Islam has always been a part of America's story," he alluded to Ellison, though not by name. Ellison's name may be the least important part of his identity. Obama said: "When the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson -- kept in his personal library."

Without trying too hard, just by being who he is, Ellison has multiple publics. To Arabs overseas, he is evidence that Americans can embrace Islam. To Muslim Americans, he is a role model for political engagement.

To the voters in the urban liberal Minneapolis precincts who actually elect him, well, they seem to like his politics, which he sums up as peace, working-class prosperity, environmental sustainability, civil rights. He won 71 percent of the ballots cast in November for his election to a second term. His district is about 77 percent white, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, with Muslims making up an estimated 3 percent. Members of labor unions and people who have Arab surnames are among his more reliable campaign contributors.

His identity is the sum and distillation of all this -- as subtly constructed as a three-cushion bank shot, a high-wire act in which wobbles to the left or right might be forgiven, but overcompensation in any direction is fatal.

At 45, he's crossed treacherous canyons on that high wire. What's his secret? A legion of puzzled, disoriented, frightened, ambitious people in the new America could use some of his moves.

"I'm an African American Muslim, and how do I get elected by mostly Lutheran whites in my district?" Ellison rephrases the question.

Yes, exactly.

The full answer is the story of his life.

The short answer is delivered with a no-big-deal shrug. "I don't really have any calculated plan," he says. "I'm just doing me."

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?"

* * *

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.

Ellison's frank owning up to past mistakes, and hammering key issues -- including calling for quick withdrawal from Iraq -- helped avert electoral disaster. He says he might not have prevailed had he not been running in a city and a state with a progressive tradition forged by the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Wellstone.

"His core values are very reflective of the people he represents," says Donna Cassutt, associate chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. "They are applicable to a variety of faith traditions."

"There are certainly more people of the far left persuasion in Minneapolis" than other parts of the state, says Ron Carey, chairman of the state Republican Party. But the GOP's core argument against Ellison is that he is outside the mainstream for even Minneapolis.

"He's just been a cheerleader for President Obama's move toward socialistic positions," Carey says. On Iraq: "If we had listened to Keith Ellison . . . we would have exited Iraq before we could have achieved that hope of a stable democracy." On Ellison's activism: "I was appalled in late April when he got arrested protesting actions in Darfur." Ellison was one of five members of Congress who staged a civil disobedience action outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. "We're all opposed to genocide," Carey says. "I thought it was unbecoming a member of Congress."

Carey attributes Ellison's large victory margin in the last election to voters' reflexive support of whoever's the Democrat on the ballot. "I never say never," he says, about a Republican win in the district in the future. "We're going to have to find that special candidate in a year when the Republican brand is in vogue."

* * *

One recent evening, Ellison is on the floor of the House. He is conservatively dressed, studious in little spectacles, low-key and friendly, not fiery. He's got an easel for a prop, and a loose-leaf notebook stuffed with facts.

His subject: The energy bill. Sample rhetorical zinger: "Let me talk about the renewable energy standard in the bill."

The nation's first Muslim in Congress does a lot of the prosaic spade-work assigned to a relatively junior member. It rarely has anything to do with his faith. Of course.

Despite the public profile available to him as the first Muslim, he is trying to work his way up in the House the old-fashioned way. It's as if his identity has two sets of muscles: one already overdeveloped and one that needs bulking up.

Back in his office, the Minnesota soybean processors are calling. Ellison is beginning to have small-scale nonsectarian legislative successes. His proposal to stop credit card companies from raising rates on people with unrelated debt problems was included in the credit card bill Obama signed. His initiative to give tenants some leeway before they can be evicted from foreclosed properties was added to the mortgage reform act also signed by Obama.

On a Saturday morning in a Washington hotel ballroom, he brings the same low-key, empirical style to a convention of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. "You should not look at Obama's speech as 'Happy day!' " Ellison says of the Cairo address. "You should look at it as, 'Wow, I guess we have a lot of work to do.' "

The crowd of nearly 200 applauds. He has a busy calendar of addresses before Muslim and Arab American groups, not to mention more casual encounters with Boy Scout troops, college students, young activists. When the formal programs are over, he has to tarry for an hour or more, obliging people who want to meet him, get a picture, an autograph, a bit of advice from this political pioneer.

"He has been an inspiration to Muslims in general but in particular to young people who have been disheartened by the politics of division and alienation and exclusion after 9/11," says Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "He serves as a good example of what America is and can be."

Presumably, Ellison could adorn his suit with some subtle pin or chain or tie pattern that would signify his religion, but he doesn't. Muslims do not necessarily want a charismatic spokesman who wears his faith on his sleeve.

"His brand of Islam, the way he has conducted himself, really resonates with the majority of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans," says Hassan Jaber, executive director of ACCESS, a Detroit-based national network of Arab American community organizations. "That's exactly the way Muslim Americans want to be judged, not as being Muslims but by their contributions to their communities as Americans."

* * *

He need not call attention to himself, because attention will be paid, not always welcome attention.

Ellison's decision to use the Koran during his ceremonial swearing-in caused a stir before Obama described it to the world. (No book is part of the official congressional oath; any book, or none at all, may be enlisted during the ceremonial photo-op.) Then-Rep. Virgil Goode Jr., a Virginia Republican, wrote to constituents: "The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district, and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

During the presidential campaign, Ellison was an early Obama supporter. He planned to speak at a mosque in Iowa on Obama's behalf. But the campaign staff asked him not to. The explanation, Ellison recalls, was: "We have a very tightly wrapped message."

"I've just taken it in stride," Ellison says. "In some cases, being a person of my faith will sometimes even open a door. Other times it will shut a door. You just deal with it."

In February, Ellison was one of the first members of Congress to visit Gaza after Israel's attacks to weaken Hamas. He took a video camera, and he showed the devastation wrought by Israeli bombs. "Here's a bomb site," he says on the video. "Someone's home, flattened." He comforts a man whose parents were killed. "You lose your family, brother? I'm very sorry."

Next he crosses the border to an Israeli city where the rockets of Hamas have been raining down for years and a majority of the children are said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. He focuses his camera on a playground that also contains a bomb shelter, brightly painted in primary colors.

"It reminded me of Gaza, where there are so many children," he says behind the camera, balancing on that tightrope. "It's an awful situation for both."

Staff researcher Madonna A. Lebling contributed to this report.

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