My Faith: Rep. Keith Ellison from Catholic to Muslim

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Chris Welch, CNN

769265196_0c4e4f2cdd_oMinneapolis, Minnesota (CNN) –Prior to 2006, few people even knew that then-Minnesota state legislator Keith Ellison was a Muslim. Because of his English name, he said, no one thought to ask.
But five years ago, when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives – a race he would go on to win – word of his religious affiliation began to spread.

“When I started running for Congress it actually took me by surprise that so many people were fascinated with me being the first Muslim in Congress,” said Ellison, a Democrat now serving his third term in the House.

“But someone said to me, ‘Look Keith, think of a person of Japanese origin running for Congress six years after Pearl Harbor–this might be a news story.’”

Though Ellison’s status as the first Muslim elected to Congress is widely known, fewer are aware that he was born into a Catholic family in Detroit and was brought up attending Catholic schools.
But he said he was never comfortable with that faith.

“I just felt it was ritual and dogma,” Ellison said. “Of course, that’s not the reality of Catholicism, but it’s the reality I lived. So I just kind of lost interest and stopped going to Mass unless I was required to.”

It wasn’t until he was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit when Ellison began, “looking for other things.”

He doesn’t have an elaborate explanation of what led him to convert to Islam in college, though he said he was “drawn to the multi-national congregation.”

“I would really like to hear somebody who is really articulate about the elements of their faith conversion. I’m not,” he said. “I investigated it, it worked for me, and it made me have a sense of inspiration and wonder, and I became a Muslim. It’s been working for me ever since.”

Ellison’s political opponents have made his faith an issue in his congressional campaigns.

“I would caution [opponents] that it doesn’t work. People are not hateful like that,” he said. “If you come up saying, ‘Vote for me because Ellison is a Muslim and I’m not,’ nine out of ten voters are going to see that as the silliness that it is.”

“It doesn’t hurt my feelings at all,” he said. “In fact I actually feel sorry for these people.”

And he said he has never had a second thought about converting.

“My faith and my identity as a Muslim – I never saw it as something that made my job harder,” he said. “It’s just an aspect of who I am.

It’s the time that we live in. We have to respond to the realities of the world we’re in.”

But Ellison acknowledges that his faith has given him something of a national profile, not always in ways that are welcome.

In March, he testified in nationally televised congressional hearings, called by Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, to explore what King said was radicalization in American Muslim communities.
At the hearing, Ellison choked up as he described the sacrifices of Muslim Americans who tried to save others in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Without any of my choosing or desire I became somewhat of a symbolic figure,” Ellison said. “And I urge anyone to avoid becoming a symbolic figure if you can. But I ended up in that position, so I just figured why not talk about it? Why not help try to bring people together with it?”

“Faith really should be a bridge, not a wall,” Ellison said. “Because at the end of the day we should be focusing on what you believe, not what your religion is.”

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Herman Cain’s Muslim Problem

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tim Murphy

On Tuesday, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain dropped by Glenn Beck’s radio program to argue that his previous promise to not appoint any Muslims to his Cabinet had been “misconstrued.” As he put it: “I did not say that I would not have them in my cabinet. If you look at my career, I have hired good people regardless of race, religion, sex gender, orientation, and this kind of thing.”

Cain’s position now is that only radical Muslims would be prohibited from serving in his administration. That sounds reasonable. Except he told Laura Ingraham in April that he’s never met a Muslim who didn’t fit his definition of a radical—and in the same interview, alleged that Rep. Keith Ellison (D–Minn.), who’s Muslim, has pledged his loyalty to Allah, not the Constitution. But even if Cain’s original statement, and subsequent defenses of it, were misconstrued, he still hasn’t adequately explained the rest of what he told Think Progress back in April.

When asked for examples of the “creeping attempt…to gradually ease” Islamic sharia law into the American judicial system he explained:

One judge did it up in New Jersey, and ruled in a case. Then last week we heard about a judge down in was it Texas? It might have been Texas where a judge said there was a dispute in a mosque and he was gonna consider ‘eclesiastical’ law in his deliberations, because of a dispute that was going on inside a mosque. This is the United States of America. Just because it’s going on inside a mosque doesnt mean you execute the laws based on what’s going on in the [mosque].”

Cain is right: This is the United States of America. But everything else here is inaccurate. In the civil case in question—which was in Florida, not Texas—the judge (a Republican) ruled that he was going to use “ecclesiastical” law because both parties had agreed, per their mutually agreed-upon contract, to settle their dispute through ecclesiastical Islamic law, in the form of a Muslim arbitrator. That’s totally normal; Christians and Jews also take advantage of independent arbitrators to settle disputes. If the government were to ban the use of such forums, it would mark a dramatic encroachment on the First Amendment’s freedom of religion—I’m fairly certain that Herman Cain doesn’t want to run for President on the platform of restricting Christians’ free speech rights. The actual trial, the judge noted, would be conducted according to Florida civil law; he was simply assessing whether the arbitration process had been handled properly.

Anyone can make a gaffe, which is how Cain is spinning his “no Muslims” comment. But the more serious problem isn’t that Cain misspoke; it’s that he has taken an extreme, unconstitutional position based on a conspiracy theory that could have been debunked in 30 seconds.

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Muslim Leadership Summit

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, TMO

IMG_0056The tectonic shift of the American Muslim community towards increased activism and strong support for the Democrats was exemplified this month by a visit of Muslim business leaders to congress and the Executive Office Building next to the White House, in an event arranged by first-ever Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison (D-5th-MN).

About 30 leaders from the Muslim community, businessmen, medical professionals and politicians, went to Washington May 11th and 12th, to meet with prominent congressmen including Keith Ellison, Andre Carson (D-7th-IN), and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-8th-CA) and to participate in discussion on foreign policy issues.  Attendees also made significant contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), under whose auspices the meetings were held.

New Jersey businessman Saeed Patel, owner of Amex Computers, said of the event that “Obviously there was a big change this year, because [the Democrats] are not in the majority anymore.”

DCCC trip 051111 052
DCCC Muslim Leadership Summit attendees and speakers including Valerie Jarrett, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Rep. Keith Ellison, Saeed Patel, and others.

Some of the prominent invitees were Mr. Patel, the attorney Mazen Asbahi from Chicago, Safir Rabb, Riaz Fakhoury from Ocala FL, SA Ibrahim, Nihad Awad of CAIR, Winston Ibrahim, Kamran Farid, and the mayor of Teaneck New Jersey, Mohammed Hameeduddin, Adnan Durrani, Uzma Iqbal, Hurram Waheed, and Kemal Oksuz were also there.

Rashad Husain, White House representative to the OIC, attended the event and spoke with the Muslim delegation members.

The Muslim delegation represented a broad swath of Muslim ethnicities and regional backgrounds, from Turkish diplomats to American businessmen of Indian origin, to African American interfaith activists and businessmen from around the world.

This was the third annual event of this type, and those in attendance expressed their wish that this annual event should continue and that the Muslim community should increase in political clout.

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Muslim 500 – A Listing of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World

November 17, 2009 by · 12 Comments 

By Adil James, MMNS

mabda500cover-v2 A fascinating new book has just been issued by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center (in Jordan) in concert with Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

The book lists the 500 most influential people in the Muslim world, breaking the people into several distinct categories, scholarly, political, administrative, lineage, preachers, women, youth, philanthropy, development, science and technology, arts and culture, media, and radicals.

Before this breakdown begins however, the absolute most influential 50 people are listed, starting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  The top 50 fit into 6 broad categories as follows:  12 are political leaders (kings, generals, presidents), 4 are spiritual leaders (Sufi shaykhs), 14 are national or international religious authorities, 3 are “preachers,” 6 are high-level scholars, 11 are leaders of movements or organizations.

The 500 appear to have been chosen largely in terms of their overt influence, however the top 50 have been chosen and perhaps listed in a “politically correct” order designed not to cause offense.  For example, the first person listed is the Sunni political leader of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah.  The second person listed is the head of the largest Shi’a power, Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.  As these are not the two Muslim countries with the largest populations, and do not even represent the two countries with the most spiritual or religious relevance (Saudi Arabia yes, Iran no) therefore clearly the decision of spots one or two appears to have been motivated by a sense of political correctness.

In total 72 Americans are among the 500 most influential Muslims, a disproportionately strong showing, but only one among the top 50.  Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson of Zaytuna Institute is listed surprisingly at number 38.  The world leader of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi order, however, Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani, with millions of followers worldwide, spiritual adviser to kings, presidents, doctors, lawyers, professors and others across the spectrum of profession, race, and ethnicity on seven continents, is listed at number 49.  While Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has successfully built the Zaytuna Institute, his influence is confined mostly to American academia, scholars and students.  Surprisingly, Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, (at number 34) is listed before any American Muslim. 

It seems strange that Yusuf is the only American listed in the top 50. Especially when Rep. Keith Ellison (D-5-MN), Tariq Ramadan and Ingrid Mattson are listed among the “honorable mentions” in the book (“honorable mentions” were almost among the top 50 but not quite—they are still listed among the 500).  Ingrid Mattson alone is likely more influential than Hamza Yusuf Hanson, for instance.  Not to mention Rep. Keith Ellison.  Even the Nobel prize winner Mohammad Yunus is listed only among the honorable mentions.

Sheikh Hisham Kabbani in the USA is listed among the most influential scholars in the Muslim world, and his relative Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon and its leading Sunni scholar, is also among the most influential scholars.  The Shi’a marja Ayatullah Sayeed Mohammad Fadlallah is the other listed scholar for Lebanon. 

The 18 prominent American Muslims in the Scholars section of the book also include Yusuf Estes, Sulayman Nyang, Muzammil Siddiqui, Sherman Jackson, Zaid Shakir, and Nuh Keller.  Two Americans are listed as Political figures in North America.  Nine Americans are listed as Administrative leaders, including Siraj Wahhaj—surprising to list him as an administrative leader rather than a preacher.  One Canadian is listed under the Lineage section, namely Jamal Badawi, but no Americans.  Under the Women heading appear six very recognizable names, perhaps most recognizable among them Ingrid Mattson, the controversial Amina Wadud, and the extremely influential Dalia Mogahed (who wrote the perhaps watershed work Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.)  Two Americans are listed in the Youth category.  Under the Philanthropy category is listed one person, Dr. Tariq Cheema, co-founder of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists.  13 Americans are listed under Development, including strangely the boxer Mohammad Ali.  Four Americans are listed under Science and Technology, perhaps most recognizably Dr. Mehmed Oz, who frequently appears on morning television to help explain medical situations to people, and who shows an interest in the overlap between traditional medicine and spirituality.  Seven Americans are listed under Arts and Culture, including the notable actors Mos Def and Dave Chappelle, also the calligrapher Mohammad Zakaria.  Nine Americans are listed in the Media section, including Fareed Zakaria and the filmmaker Michael Wolfe.

The book’s appendices comprehensively list populations of Muslims in nations worldwide, and its introduction gives a snapshot view of different ideological movements within the Muslim world, breaking down clearly distinctions between traditional Islam and recent radical innovations.

People who are themselves prominent scholars contributed to or edited the book, including of course Georgetown University’s Professor John Esposito and Professor Ibrahim Kalin.  Ed Marques and Usra Ghazi also edited and prepared the book.  The book lists as consultants Dr. Hamza Abed al Karim Hammad, and Siti Sarah Muwahidah, with thanks to other contributors.

The entire book is available online (here:  http://www.rissc.jo/muslim500v-1L.pdf) and we hope that it will be available for sale soon inside the United States.  Currently it is not available.

To encourage the printing and release of the book in the United States you can contact Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at cmcu@georgetown.edu, or by phone at 202-687-8375.

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“Healthcare, Yes or No?”

September 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Keith Ellison: Do We Want Health Care or Do We Not?

By Rep. Keith Ellison

EllisonObama So, my friends, what were we thinking? Did we really think that extending health care coverage to all Americans would be easy? Did we really believe that those who reap g’zillions of bucks from our ‘health’ (read: ‘sick’) care system were going to give it all up without a fight? Of course those who benefit from the status quo are attacking the Public Option. Of course they are falsely claiming that Medicare reimbursement for end-of-life discussions are “death panels”. Of course they are disrupting town hall forums — some even carrying firearms. It’s not an element of reform they oppose; it’s reform itself.

The special interests and protectors of the status quo acted worse when America was on the brink of passing Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. They spread lies and fear when America was contemplating women’s suffrage too.

Maybe it’s us, and not opponents of reform, who have failed to grasp the magnitude of this moment. We are on the verge of bringing about health care reform 60 years in waiting. Yes, we’re going to have to fight for it. I worry that a little rough stuff has discouraged some progressives. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” It’s easy to figure out who the “Power” is. The 10 largest health insurers took in $13 billion in 2007 with CEOs earning an average $12 million a year, according to Health Care for America Now.

I have been a little concerned about some Democratic leaders who appear to be dancing away from the Public Option. But momentary wavering in leadership has provoked expressions of clarity from the people. Sixty Progressives in Congress have roared back in favor of the Public Option declaring their unwavering support in a letter to the White House. Thousands of people are raising their voices for the Public Option around America. Everyone has someone in their family who has been hurt by not having health care, and now is the time to speak up for every denial for a pre-existing condition, every forgone procedure, and everyone facing bankruptcy due to medical debt.

We are relearning a valuable lesson, aren’t we? The ones who want to conserve the status quo, sometimes known as Conservatives, will accept no compromises. Nothing. Jettisoning the public option won’t bring forth a bipartisan bill.

I appreciate U.S. Senator Richard Shelby’s candor. He recently said that defeating healthcare reform would benefit Republicans politically. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters on a recent conference call that he stands opposed even to health care co-ops. Rush Limbaugh had this to say: “These co-ops, like we’re too stupid to know what that’s all about,” Limbaugh said. “Co-op? Why don’t they just call them communes?” Sen. Jim DeMint famously said defeating healthcare would be Obama’s “Waterloo.”

So Good. No more wasting time. Now, we need a new message: Can you say “reconciliation”? With a reconciliation vote, you don’t need 60 votes to pass a health care bill through the U.S. Senate, but rather a majority vote of 51. Given the intransigence of Conservatives, reformers must begin a drum beat for a reconciliation vote for health care.

We have the power to start that drum beat. Call your representatives every day. Post it on your Face book. Twitter for Healthcare. Bring it up in casual conversations. Talk to the clerk that sells you your groceries. Call your Mom. Call your Broker. Pray for the public option in church, synagogue, or Mosque.

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