Faith Matters
11:30 am
Fri February 28, 2014

Rep. Keith Ellison Wonders Why 'People Care' About His Muslim Faith

Representative Keith Ellison became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress in 2006, and the first person of color elected to represent Minnesota in the national legislature. Along the way he's confronted questions about his faith, patriotism, and even some unpaid parking tickets that nearly derailed his first campaign. He talks about all that in his new book, My Country, 'Tis Of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future.


Interview Highlights

On the controversy over swearing in with a Quran

It did not occur to me that it would be a problem, you know? I don't know what that reflects about me, but when I was asked the question, my primary concern was getting voters out to the polls, not what I was going to swear in on. I hadn't even assumed that I would be swearing in on anything, because the election had not come. And so, I said "well yeah sure, of course I'll swear in on the Quran." Because it occurs to me that if your elected official is one who would want to swear in on a holy book, you'd want them to swearing on a holy book they profess to, right? Because that's what makes the oath solemn.

On giving tearful testimony at the House of Representatives

It started out very calm, I was fine. But as I just started thinking about [Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who died during the 9/11 attacks], his mother, so many people I've known who've been yanked off airplanes, had their hjiabs pulled off their head, been stabbed, and had their mosques defaced, and been opposed by zoning commissions, I don't know. Maybe it was just all that that came together in my mind in that moment. I don't know what came over me. I remember when I was done feeling embarrassed and wanting to get out of there.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. On this program we often talk about the intersection of faith and politics. My next guest is a trailblazer in both of those areas. When he was first elected to Congress in 2006, Keith Ellison was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, as well as the first person of color elected to represent Minnesota in the national legislator.

Along the way, he's had to confront questions about his faith and patriotism -as well as some unpaid parking tickets that nearly derailed his first campaign. He talks about all of this in his new book "My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future." And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congressman Ellison, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

REPRESENTATIVE KEITH ELLISON: Always great to be here.

MARTIN: Why this book at this time? What made you want to write this book now?

ELLISON: That's a good question. I'll say that the fact that led to the invitation to write the book was when I was a witness at a hearing at the Homeland Security Committee. Chairman Peter King convened the hearing. And the focus was violent radicalization among American Muslims, and he had a bunch of other hearings that he did on violent radicalization among Muslims in prison, violent radicalization among Somali Muslims.

And I went to him and I said, you know, you could stereotype a community and do a lot of damage if you do it this way. What if you just did violent radicalization and included a range of people who might present a national security threat to Americans and, of course, you would include some people who were Muslim in that? He said, nope, we're not doing that. And then he and I went back and forth, but he said, look, here's what I'll do - I'll let you testify. So I did testify. And in the course of my testimony, which started out very calm, cool and rational, I started talking about a kid named Mohammed Salman Hamdani.

MARTIN: I have a clip, if you would like to hear it.

ELLISON: Go for it, sure.

MARTIN: Why don't we play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ELLISON: (Crying) Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion., but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

MARTIN: For those who don't remember that you were focusing on this young man who died while rescuing others from the World Trade Center. Do you remember what sparked that?

ELLISON: You know, when you played that clip it sent chills right back through me like I was sitting at that table. And, you know, I was - it started out very calm, I was fine. But as I just started thinking about that boy, his mother, so many people I've known who've been yanked off airplanes, had their hijabs pulled off their head, been stabbed, and had their mosque defaced, and been opposed by zoning commissions - I don't know, maybe it was just all that that came together in my mind at that moment. I don't know. I got to tell you - I don't know what came over me. But - and I remember when I was done feeling embarrassed and wanting to get out of there.

That's what I remember. But anyway, after that, Simon and Schuster called me, a woman named Karen Hunter - who's since then become a great friend of mine - said, look, you should write a book. I didn't - but even that doesn't explain why I said yes to that, right? I said yes because I just think that our country is at a new crossroads in terms of inclusion. We have a new scapegoat and we need to address it as we have addressed others in the past. And so that's why I decided to write the book.

MARTIN: And it pulls together, you know, a lot of kind of the strands of your life, including the fact that you grew up in a family that was pretty agnostic.

ELLISON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, your dad in particular...

ELLISON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You mentioned, who had kind of a hardscrabble road to eventual professional success as a doctor - not terribly religious.

ELLISON: No.

MARTIN: Not terribly in love with organized religion anyway.

ELLISON: Right, true.

MARTIN: And you write actually very beautifully about your introduction to the Quran and how it appealed to you, which is interesting because people who hear you speak as a politician don't often hear that poetry in your voice. And I just wondered if you could try to capture a little bit of what...

ELLISON: I hope so.

MARTIN: ...The moment of when you realized that this was your destiny.

ELLISON: I don't know if it's possible. But all I can remember is listening to the preacher talk about how the mission of Muhammad, you know, the prophet - peace and blessings be upon him - was justice. And that he confronted the status quo in Mecca where he lived and grew up. And that what he was really seeking his freedom and he stood up with Bilal, who had been an enslaved person. And Bilal nearly died professing his faith in the one God. And that I found this incredibly moving and unifying and inclusive, and that this was group of people from diverse backgrounds united in the idea that they would submit to none but the creator of the heavens and the earth.

MARTIN: You know, you do tell this funny story - well, actually it's funny to me 'cause I didn't have to live through it - where some unpaid parking tickets...

ELLISON: Oh, boy.

MARTIN: That you had accumulated while you were - I'm sure your glad that I brought that up, right?

ELLISON: No, no, no - no, I mean, it happened.

MARTIN: It accumulated while were in private practice, and then in the legislature running around, surfaced and it really had a significant effect on your primary race.

ELLISON: Sure.

MARTIN: In fact, your poll numbers were dropping...

ELLISON: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: At that time because of that. I mean, did you - so I'm trying to think, between unpaid parking tickets and being a Muslim, which was the bigger issue for you?

ELLISON: Well, at the moment, in that primary, it was the unpaid parking tickets, for sure because, you know, Minnesota has this tradition of being liberal and inclusive - and it is that, but they're also very good good-government people. And they don't take kindly to folks not following the rules, particularly when they follow them. So the best advice I got is from a former governor who said. Keith. you simply must apologize because...

MARTIN: Nobody wants to hear you were too busy.

ELLISON: Nobody wants to hear it 'cause, like, we're all busy. And it was an very important lesson in my life.

MARTIN: When did it become an issue? When did your religion become an issue? Almost immediately, right? In the general election?

ELLISON: Well, you know, it's funny - as soon as I won the DFL - Democratic Farmer Labor - endorsement, that is when the issue of religion first confronted me in a huge way. But it really wasn't - it didn't start out bad. There was a reporter, her name was Rachel Olson, and she said aren't you, like, a Muslim? I was like, yeah. And she said, well, if you win, will you be the first one? I said I don't know. And everything up until then had been other issues, but then the religious issue really came up. And one day I was just sort of like say, well, why is - why do people care? And the answer was, look, this is like somebody who's of Japanese ancestry being elected to Congress a few years after Pearl Harbor - I mean, it's - people - it's a thing. And you need to confront the fact that people are concerned about it. And I did.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're speaking with Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. We're talking about his latest book "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." He recounts some of his personal journey, including his conversion to Islam and the role that faith plays in his public life, as well as his private life. You know, one of the first big decisions you made was to take the oath of office on the Quran.

ELLISON: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you took it on a Quran that Thomas Jefferson...

ELLISON: Right.

MARTIN: ...Had owned. I'm interested in your decision-making on this because I know it came up during the campaign because somebody said to you, well, if you win - and this is even before you'd won.

ELLISON: Right.

MARTIN: If you win, will you take the oath on the Quran? And you said you hadn't even really thought about it. I was interested in how you did come to a decision and what is your overall philosophy of when you'll talk about your faith and when you won't.

ELLISON: Well, you know, I came to the decision to swear on the Quran because it never - again, it did not occur to me that it would be a problem, you know. Maybe - I mean, I don't know what that reflects about me, but I just - when I was asked the question, my primary concern was getting voters out to the polls, not what I was going to swear in on. I hadn't even assumed that I would be swearing in on anything 'cause the election had not come. And so I said, well, yeah, sure, why - of course I'll swear on the Quran because it occurs to me that if your elected official is one who would want to swear in on a holy book, you'd want him to swear it on the holy book that they profess to, right, because that's what makes the oath solemn, you know.

What role does faith play in my life and when do I talk about it? I talk about it when I'm asked about it. That's pretty much my rule. I don't - I believe that faith is important to Americans, but I also believe very firmly in that constitutional amendment which says Congress shall make no law establishing religion or abridging the free exercise thereof. So it's important in American life, I feel that it is absolutely inappropriate to impose my faith on anyone. But when people want to discuss matters of faith, I find myself willing to do that.

MARTIN: You note in the book that, all these many years after 9/11, that actually there is some evidence that hostility toward Muslims has actually increased.

ELLISON: Yeah, and this...

MARTIN: By a number kind of - of measures.

ELLISON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think the question I would ask you is what will change this.

ELLISON: Right.

MARTIN: What do you think will change this dynamic or this trajectory that we seem to be on at the moment?

ELLISON: Well, the thing is - is that even in the civil rights case, most Americans looked upon what America stands for, which is liberty and justice, equality for all, and said this treatment that these civil rights demonstrators are receiving does not comport with who we consider ourselves to be as Americans. And so what I'm finding is that the anti-Muslim hate, though it's out there, it's waning in its power. And if you have any doubt about it, just remember when my colleague Michele Bachmann said that Huma Abedin was a plant for the Muslim Brotherhood. Well, you know, what happened...

MARTIN: Who's a top aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department.

ELLISON: Who's a top - exactly, thank you. And - but, you know, John McCain said that's ridiculous. Then John Boehner said that's not appropriate. Then it was a whole sea of Republicans who said that's not really what we are about. And so my point is that it's not nearly as fashionable as it used to be to engage in that kind of rhetoric.

MARTIN: What message would you want people to draw from this book? And we're really only scratching the surface of some of the very interesting stories that you tell, including on how you revealed your new faith commitment at Thanksgiving dinner, which I don't think is something you advise, right, to our other families who are embracing...

(LAUGHTER)

ELLISON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: But what would you want people to draw from the book?

ELLISON: I think the idea of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" is that we are gifted with an amazingly diverse, wonderful country that holds as its highest inspirations inclusion. And yet, the fact of our lives is that we're not always that way. Yet we should always be on the path to be making America a more perfect union. And that means no matter what culture or faith group you come from, that we all should be on the path toward making this a country where we can all sincerely sing, with no reservations, my country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.

MARTIN: That was Congressman Keith Ellison. He's a Democrat from Minnesota. His latest book is titled "My Country 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future." He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

ELLISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.