Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations



There's A Muslim in the House
by John Cosgriff




From a distance, the election of the first Muslim to Congress looked like a perfect example of American pluralism triumphant. But the story of how Keith Ellison came to represent the 5th district of Minnesota is a little more complicated

Covering Minneapolis and its western suburbs, the 5th is the most Democratic district in Minnesota, with 72 percent of its voters supporting John Kerry in 2004. Its congressional seat opened up after 14-term congressman Martin Sabo announced his retirement on March 18 of last year.

As his successor, Sabo tapped Mike Erlandson, who had been his chief of staff after serving as chairman of the state Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which is effectively the Democratic Party in Minnesota. Erlandson did not lack for enemies, however, and when he declined to tell the party convention in early May whether he would abide by its choice, he was roundly booed.

The convention proceeded to endorse Ellison, a criminal defense lawyer and state representative since 2002 whom AP reporter Patrick Condon described as “a fiery orator who earlier in the day whipped up delegates with a passionate speech.” Of a dozen aspirants to the 5th-district seat, two besides Ellison (Erlandson and state senator Ember Reichgott Junge) decided to compete in the September 14 primary to be the party’s nominee.

With DFL anointing came media scrutiny. It quickly emerged that Ellison had been late paying some state and federal taxes, had failed to pay a number of parking tickets, and had had his driver’s license suspended. The major focus of concern, however, was his sometime radicalism—especially his association with the Nation of Islam (NOI), the American Muslim sect best known for its black self-help ideology and its sometime anti-white and anti-Jewish rhetoric.

In a June 3 article, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s beat reporter for the 5th district race, Rochelle Olson, quoted Ellison as denying that he ever formally belonged to the NOI. He had, he insisted, established connections with it only at the time of the 1995 Million Man March—“in an effort to promote African-American self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, and community economic development.” The march, organized by NOI Minister Louis Farrakhan, enjoyed considerable mainstream African-American support.

In the article, Olson quoted some local Jewish leaders who accepted Ellison’s explanation and others who were “heavily dismayed by his association with a vicious anti-Semitic group.”

In a June 28 profile, Olson and Mark Brunswick reported that in 2000 Ellison referred to the prosecution of Malcolm X’s daughter, Qubilah Shabazz, as retribution against Farrakhan. They also wrote that Ellison had previously spoken out against the “political” prosecution of a former Black Panther activist convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer. And they raised the issue of Ellison’s public defense of Sarah Jane Olson (no relation), who once belonged to the radical Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. (A federal fugitive for 25 years, Sara Jane Olson was arrested for murder in 1999 after being discovered “living the life of a soccer mom” in St. Paul.)

By way of response, Ellison told the reporters that he had been “an angry young black man” while attending law school in the mid-1990s. “He has come a long way from the days of making impassioned speeches while wearing bib overalls, to his days now on the floor of the Minnesota House, often wearing a crisp white shirt and suspenders while speaking on legislation,” Olson and Brunswick wrote. In follow-up articles, Olson continued to explore what Ellison repeatedly called “exaggerated parts” of his past.

Nor was the Star Tribune alone. On June 5, the conservative blog Powerline—which along with a number of other on-line commentators had singled out Ellison as a particular object of enmity—posted a facsimile of a column defending Farrakhan from charges of anti-Semitism that “Keith X. Ellison” had written for Minneapolis’ black newspaper, Insight News, in 1995. Ellison’s use of “X” as his middle initial seemed to cast doubt on his claim that he had never formally joined the NOI.

The following month, the AP’s Condon (who provided coverage of the race for the other major local daily, the St. Paul Pioneer Press), wrote that though Ellison “adheres to the religion’s more moderate Sunni Branch,” his “ties [to the NOI] will always remain an issue.”

By this point, the issue of Ellison’s religion was so front and center that some news outlet ought to have run a full-dress feature on the subject—his beliefs, place of worship, imam, family practices, etc. But neither the Star Tribune nor any other publication ever got around to it. In response to a recent query on the subject, Star Tribune religion writer Pam Miller emailed, “I haven’t written about him because our political reporters have covered his religious life and affiliations in many, many stories and it seemed redundant.”

By the end of the summer it had become clear that Ellison had weathered the criticism and would likely win the primary. It didn’t hurt to have received the endorsement of the local Jewish weekly, the American Jewish World, which in a September 1 editorial praised him for “represent[ing] the progressive populist vision that Minnesota lost with the untimely passing of Paul Wellstone in 2002.”

On September 6, the Star Tribune, too, editorialized that Ellison “has reminded more than one voter” of the liberal U.S. senator who had died in a plane crash while campaigning for reelection. But the paper nonetheless backed Erlandson on the grounds that he was “best prepared to step in.”

Meanwhile, at a September 13 news conference, Republican nominee Alan Fine, a Jewish businessman and lecturer at the University of Minnesota, denounced Ellison’s association with the “anti-Semitic” NOI, calling him “a person who believes that the white man is the antichrist, a person who called for the destruction of our nation, a person who believes that Jews are the scourge of the earth.” 

On September 14, Ellison won the primary with a plurality of 41 percent of the vote.

The following day, the Star Tribune denounced the Republican “smear campaign” against Ellison. “Fine could choose from plenty of legitimate GOP bones to pick with Ellison,” said the paper, “but not his religion and not this thin, hateful attempt to tie Ellison and his party to Islamic extremism.” Two weeks later, Ellison received the Star Tribune’s endorsement for the general election.

After the primary, the strongest criticism of Ellison in the mainstream media came from Star Tribune conservative columnist Katherine Kersten. In a September 18 column, Kersten decried an unspecified “Excuse Brigade” for brushing aside Ellison’s motor vehicle problems and charged as well that he had distanced himself from the NOI only after he decided to enter electoral politics.

But in the Minnesota 5th, that was hardly going to make a difference. On November 7, Keith Ellison was elected to Congress by a margin of nearly 3 to 1. Summing up the significance on November 8, St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Aron Kahn proclaimed that Ellison had “don[ned] the mantle of ambassador to the world’s second largest religion.”

While the national media had taken note of Ellison’s potentially historic status before the election, he received the full media spotlight after his triumph. On November 10, the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar wrote that Muslims in America “and even abroad” were celebrating Ellison’s victory as a “sign of acceptance and a welcome antidote to their faith’s sinister image.”

Well, perhaps not all Muslims abroad. “Why is Al Qaeda trash-talking Keith Ellison?” ran the lede on James Gordon Meek’s November 12 story in the New York Daily News. It seemed that jihadist chat rooms out of the Middle East were not happy with Ellison, a “Jew Muslim” out to deceive the Islamic faithful.

“Why would Al Qaeda embrace Keith’s success?” Ellison spokeswoman Bridget Cusick asked Meeks. “He’s the opposite of what they’re about.” Ellison was nothing if not fortunate in his critics.

On November 14, CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck congratulated Ellison on his victory and then blurted out, “I know Islam is not a religion of evil…but what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”

Roundly slammed for his question—Jon Stewart of The Daily Show quipped, “Finally, a guy who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking”—Beck was only the first national figure to treat Ellison as a token of an Islamic threat to the nation.

Throughout his campaign, Ellison had advertised himself as a faithful Muslim, and as early as October 8, one of his supporters in the 5th district, a Somali immigrant, told the New York Times that, if elected, Ellison would take his oath of office on the Koran. The Constitution might forbid religious tests for office, but for some, the Koran seemed too un-American to be tolerated in a congressional swearing in.

Dennis Prager, Judaism’s answer to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, led the charge. In a November 28 posting on the blog, Prager wrote that Ellison should not serve in Congress unless he were willing to swear upon the Bible, because American society is based on biblical—Judeo-Christian—values. Indeed, Prager wrote, if Ellison were allowed to break the “tradition” of swearing an oath on the Bible, he would “do more damage to the American value system than the terrorists of 9/11.”

Prager backtracked slightly after it was pointed out the tradition of taking the oath of office on the Bible is confined to private ceremonies and is wholly unofficial: Members of Congress are actually sworn in all at once on the floor of the House, with no holy books in evidence.

National condemnation of the attack was swift. Editorial boards around the country attempted to give citizens a history lesson in religious pluralism and sensitivity. On December 8, for example, the Hartford Courant took Prager to task for his “boneheaded views.” The Baltimore Sun on December 12 remarked, “Mr. Prager is the sort of commentator who uses the word ‘America’ a lot, even when he is speaking for hardly anyone besides himself.”

In subsequent columns and in television interviews, Prager insisted that he was not attacking Islam but only defending the American value system. However, he did not feel called upon to criticize Mazie Hirono (D-HI)—one of two Buddhists elected to Congress—for declining to use any religious text as part of her assumption of office.

It seemed as though the “Bigots attack Ellison” story had run out of steam when, on December 19, the Charlottesville, Virginia C-Ville Weekly, published a letter to his constituents from the local Republican congressman, Virgil Goode, that tied Ellison’s swearing-in to the illegal immigrant issue.

 “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America,” Goode wrote. “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.”

Once again, the mainstream media leaped to Ellison’s defense. On December 22, the Washington Post said that Goode, in “a state of xenophobic delirium,” was “evidently napping in class the day they taught the traditional American values of tolerance, diversity and religious freedom.” On December 28, the Charlotte Observer called the letter “further evidence of the sad decline in Virginia’s contribution to democratic thought.”

For his part, Ellison handled the assaults with utmost adroitness. He let it be known that for his private ceremony he would be using the edition of the first English translation of the Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson, author of Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom. After being sworn in on the floor of the House, Ellison went up to Goode and invited him out for a cup of coffee.

As he told the Houston Chronicle,  “Look, we’re trying to build bridges…we’re trying to help bring about understanding. We don’t want issues of misunderstanding and division to exist if they don’t have to.”

His past may not have been without its checkered side, but there can be no doubt that, by the time the 110th Congress had gotten down to work, Ellison had earned the mantle that had been thrust upon him. A triumph for American pluralism indeed.


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