By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 10:28 AM
The founder of one of the country's most prominent tea party organizations said in an interview Wednesday that he stands by an Internet column in which he urged the defeat of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, because he is Muslim.
"If you read the Koran, the Koran in no uncertain terms says some wonderful things like, 'Kill the infidels,' " said Judson Phillips, the founder of Nashville-based Tea Party Nation. "It says it on more than one occasion. I happen to be the infidel. I have a real problem with people who want to kill me just because I'm the infidel."
Phillips came under fire Wednesday after publishing a column through Tea Party Nation's Web site in which he urged voters in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District to support independent candidate Lynne Torgerson over Ellison. Phillips said in the column that Ellison's Muslim faith as well as his liberal voting record and his support for sending federal funds to "terrorists in Gaza" were reasons to vote him out of office.
"There are a lot of liberals who need to be retired this year, but there are few I can think of more deserving than Keith Ellison," Phillips wrote. "Ellison is one of the most radical members of congress. He has a ZERO rating from the American Conservative Union. He is the only Muslim member of congress. He supports the Counsel for American Islamic Relations, HAMAS and has helped congress send millions of tax dollars to terrorists in Gaza."
Phillips, whose group came to prominence last spring as the organizer and host of a tea party convention in Nashville at which Sarah Palin was the keynote speaker, was quickly condemned by Democrats and liberal commentators.
In a statement late Wednesday, Ellison said, "I issue a call to civility, and urge Americans to reject the divisive rhetoric of Republican Tea Party leaders like Judson Phillips, including calls for my defeat solely because of my religion."
"Whether or not they can prove that Rep. Ellison has 'helped congress send millions of tax' to Gaza, or whether the Congressman or the Council on American-Islamic Relations supports Hamas, that's besides the point. Because all Muslims are anti-American, right? Right?" wrote Jamil Smith at The Maddow Blog. "Being a Muslim, per the Tea Party Nation, is now a disqualifying characteristic for being a member of Congress."
Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement, "The Tea Party has featured congressional candidates that dress up as a Nazi, have ties to a criminal biker gang, have called for the violent overthrow of government, and now the leadership is disgracefully telling voters to vote against someone solely on the basis of their religion. The American people will reject this reckless Right Wing extremism that has unfortunately been embraced by the Republican Party."
Phillips inaccurately described Ellison as the only Muslim in Congress, but he corrected himself in an interview Wednesday, noting that Ellison was the first Muslim but is now one of two. He defended his essay and said he believes more people agree with him than not.
"I'm not one who accepts the infallible interpretation of the Bible, but my understanding is that this is a central tenet of Islam," Phillips said. "If you're a member of any group that advocates killing me because you don't happen to agree with me, that causes me a problem. Also, when Ellison was elected, he made a big deal about his beliefs. When he was sworn in, he insisted on being sworn in on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran. Did you know that?"
Phillips's comments keeps alive the conversation about the role of racism and bigotry within the tea party movement. According to a broad canvass of 647 local tea party groups conducted this year by The Washington Post, 11 percent of organizers say President Obama's race, religion or ethnic background is very important or somewhat important to their members' participation in the movement.
As Election Day approaches - and with many close races featuring tea party-backed candidates - the role of race and ethnicity has flared up elsewhere. In Nevada, tea party candidate Sharron Angle is under fire for running television ads in which she accuses her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, of encouraging illegal immigrants to enter the country. Although Angle has said her ads are not necessarily about Latin American immigrants - "Our northern border is where the terrorists came through" - her ads feature dark-skinned Latinos and a border station in El Paso.