A Muslim elected to Congress? Many Muslim Americans have tried in vain to attain this elusive office, their efforts stymied for various reasons including weak campaign skills, lack of political experience, and continuing suspicion of Muslim American loyalties. But one Muslim politician has done it the hard (i.e. right) way – by working his way up the political ladder and building a wide constituency of supporters in his district – not just those in the Muslim community. With his endorsement last week by the Minnesota DFL (affiliated with the Democratic Party), two-term state legislator Keith Ellison is well positioned to succeed retiring Congressman Martin Sabo in Minnesota’s heavily Democratic Fifth District and make history as America’s first Muslim member of Congress. Running on a progressive platform that some liken to the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Ellison doesn’t emphasize his Muslim faith, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. “It’s good for people to see a reasonable, moderate face of Islam,” said Ellison, who has worked with the local Muslim community to promote civic participation. But despite the advantages of party endorsement and a favorable electoral demographic (the Fifth District is one of the most liberal districts in the US), Ellison still faces some obstacles in his road to Washington, DC. A few Democratic candidates who lost out on the DFL endorsement will run against Ellison in September’s primary, and his Muslim faith coupled with his past participation in the Million Man March (along with, uh, a million other people) is already drawing attacks on right-wing websites. Ellison, however, remains unfazed while he hits the campaign trail. “I just started studying [Islam] and found it interesting,” said Ellison of his conversion many years ago. “I lead my life in a way to not make religion a big deal.”
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.