Conversations: Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, discusses the current crisis in Libya and Muslims in America
As the first Muslim elected to Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison(D-Minn.) is often a go-to person for Muslim Americans, Muslim leaders overseas and others focused on the intersection of Islam and government. He has served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Democracy Partnership, which works with lawmakers in emerging democracies. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein asked Ellison about some of the Islam-related stories in the news.
Q: What do you think the attack on the Libyan embassy and violence elsewhere in the Muslim world reflect?
A: I think what this means is that the counterrevolution is alive and well. You had revolutions in various Arab Muslim countries, and that really gave the whole nation an opportunity for democracy. And the people who don’t want that won’t take it lying down.
Q: How should the United States confront this?
A: I do believe you have to fight al-Qaida. But that’s the smallest part of the problem. What we do need to do is strengthen the forces of democracy . . . broaden our trade relationships. Right now, we’re focused on petroleum and natural gas. We need to find out what they’re ready to make, we’ll buy some of it, and sell some of our stuff. We need to promote entrepreneurship. Get together to trade products. You can’t give enough foreign aid to a country to bring it into [the] middle class. They have to power themselves. . . .
Some say: Why give foreign aid to any of these people? Why don’t we close our embassy? There’s talk like that. This is the wrong direction.
Q: Many Americans are busy trying to translate what all this means about the Muslim world. Are American Muslims focused on it as well?
A: Two-thirds of American Muslims were born elsewhere. But their kids don’t have their same questions.
Q: Where do you get your information about man-on-the-street views in the Muslim world?
A: I have little groups I talk with — a bunch of Libyans, Egyptians, people who actually live in Israel. I talk with people from Yemen. Last week when [Congress was] in session, a group came from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya — newly elected people from Morocco and Jordan. Some were Salafi. They participated in an election. They had to make an argument to a voter. You have to respect who they are. They may have a very orthodox and devout practice, but they still believe in the democratic process.
Q: What do you hear from Muslim Americans about all this?
A: [The] Muslim American community is bifurcated in terms of age. Younger people say: This is interesting as a foreign policy conversation but I need to talk about here. That’s extremely common. They want to talk Islamophobia, the younger people. The older people are just glad to be here. Shut up and keep your head down.
Q: How has the post-Sept. 11 decade changed these views?
A: The people I talk to are as concerned about anti-Muslim hate as much as ever before. One thing they commonly complain about is, if you make a slur against blacks you’ll be in trouble. But if you say some crazy stuff about Muslims no one cares. I think it’s actually gotten worse. I think in 2001 we were in a better place than we are now. Then, there were people who didn’t like Muslims, but now there is an industry to pump out negativity. You have [Republican congresswoman] Michele Bachmann [of Minnesota] going around saying the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the government. You can count on something like this every two months.
Q: What did you think about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s comments at the United Nations that speech critical of Islam should be forbidden?
A: Locally, I think the general consensus is, even though that [anti-Muslim] film wasn’t a good-faith effort to raise issues about Islam, it was just deliberate incitement. But how do you draw a neat line in a way such that you could ban it? You really can’t. If you do, you’ll ban some stuff that should be in public discourse. In America, we err on the side of more speech even though some of it is disgusting.
Q: Do you think the film and other recent incidents have made Americans more open to the idea of banning some kinds of speech?
A: American Muslims can explain to the rest of the world how free expression works. . . . I was in the [San Francisco] Bay Area recently talking to groups, and in Minneapolis, just folks. They get it. You could be on the Internet for five minutes and hear people say Islam is a mental illness. If you don’t let that guy say what he wants to say, what about passing a law against you practicing your religion? If it were up to a vote, it would be easier to pass a law banning the practice of Islam than one banning hate speech.
Q: What do you think of President Obama’s efforts in the Muslim world?
A: I think he’s done a great job. . . . But there are some things he could have done better. I think the Cairo speech was extremely important. We should return to it on a regular basis. He made one mistake. He should have in the same trip gone right to Tel Aviv [to assuage fears of Israel supporters that the United States was shifting its sympathies]. There’s no doubt we have this historic relationship with Israel, and now it seems like we’re hanging out with these new kids.
Transition is always messy. We see birthday cakes when they’re on the table with candles and icing. But two hours before, when it’s in the oven, it doesn’t look like that.
The reality is, we’re 11 years into Afghanistan. The drone program might get rid of al-Qaida, but it also causes collateral damage. But overall I think Obama did a great job. Only he can see this thing through. [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney will set back the two-state dream maybe permanently. You need someone who believes in the concept.
Q: What do people in your district ask you about most?
A: Unemployment. Jobs. Livable wage jobs.
— Michelle Boorstein
About Keith Ellison
●Represents Minnesota’s 5th District since 2007.
●Serves on the House Financial Services Committee; House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee.
●Co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus for the 112th Congress; is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
●Before Congress: practiced law and was a community activist; also served two terms in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.
● Hometown: Detroit.
● Earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1990.
●Is the father of four children.