Q&A: America’s first Muslim congressman
The first Muslim elected to Congress discusses the election, drone policy, and what he admires about John McCain.
Six years ago, Keith Ellison – a lawyer from Minneapolis, Minnesota – became the first Muslim to win a seat in Congress.
He was sworn into office using a Quran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the third president and a founding father of the United States.
Ellison, a liberal Democrat who is now the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, opposed the war in Iraq, supports gay rights and immigration reform, and voted in favour of Obama’s health-care programme.
Al Jazeera’s Sam Bollier spoke to Ellison about the Muslim vote in the upcoming presidential election, the increasing diversity of the US electorate, and what to do about drones:
Sam Bollier: In 2008, about 90 per cent of American Muslims voted for Obama. Do you think a similar percentage will vote for Obama this time around?
Keith Ellison: Yeah, because I think the Republican Party as a brand has made it very clear that part of their political presentation is being anti-Muslim.
That’s not to say – and I want to be very clear – I’m not saying that all Republicans are anti-Muslim. [New Jersey Governor] Chris Christie has done some notable, laudable things … but if you look at everyone from [Minnesota Congresswoman] Michele Bachmann to [presidential candidate] Herman Cain, if you look at the deafening silence coming from Mitt Romney on issues of inclusion with the Muslim community – it’s very clear that there’s an active move to try to marginalise the Muslim voice, and Republican leaders are either letting it happen or not saying anything at all.
One exception to that is when [Senator John] McCain got up there to defend [Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff] Huma Abedin, and I thought he was great to do it. [Some Republican congressmen had accused Abedin of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.] But that episode is notable for its rarity.
SB: Have foreign policy decisions like the expansion of the drone war in Pakistan – as well as things Obama had less control over, like surveillance of Muslim communities and the failure to close Guantanamo – made Muslims less likely to favour Obama?
“The real question is: should we weaponise drones at all or should we use them strictly for surveillance?“
– Keith Ellison
KE: I think the Muslim community’s still going to vote for Obama in overwhelming numbers, but I think that this unbridled enthusiasm – it’s a little more tempered. … I can tell you that my message to the community is: don’t be upset with Obama for those things. You need to understand that you need to continually push candidates even after you’ve got them in office.
On the drone issue, I’ve been urging Muslim communities to pull together community forums on what should be the proper drone policy. Because look: drones are technology. And you can no more stop technology than you can stop, I don’t know, gravity. People are going to think of new stuff, that’s just the way it is … technology is going to keep on moving forward. And if a president can hit the enemies of America without putting Americans in harm’s way, then they’re going to do it.
The real question is: should we weaponise drones at all or should we use them strictly for surveillance? Should there be some rules around the usage of drones – so for example, what if you said you could never use a drone to assassinate anybody, you should use it only to apprehend them?
I’m not saying that that should be the rule; I’m encouraging communities to raise these questions. Because the US leads the world in drone technology, but I guarantee you other countries are going to start developing it, and it won’t be long before there’s going to be an international conference on how we use drones as a world. … I encourage the Muslim community to be on the front end of that conversation.
SB: Has the Obama campaign made significant outreach efforts to American Muslim voters?
KE: Yeah, they have – but I think the real energy is coming from the community itself. I think the Muslim community in the United States has gotten past expecting some outside source or force to organise us, and the real energy is coming from within the community. …
I think it’s far healthier for the community to say look, we don’t see it as Obama’s job to get us out to vote. We’re the ones who create a power base of voters so that he needs us to get elected, rather than us chasing him around and then having our feelings hurt because he won’t come to a mosque or something like that.
So I see the community taking the power within their own hands and making a sober assessment of which candidate’s better and then kind of operating on the basis of self-interest.
SB: Do you think there is a generational gap among American Muslims regarding the issues they find important?
KE: I think the Muslim community in general is very, very focused on civil rights. But I think that the older generation is a little bit more focused on international policy and the younger generation’s a lot more focused on domestic issues.
SB: What do you think the Republican Party would have to do to win more Muslim votes again?
KE: I think they’d have to start leading in the area of civil rights and inclusion for all. The Republican Party has to understand that people follow policy. Why is it so much so that African Americans are so tightly associated with the Democratic party? Because that’s the party that in the 50s and 60s led the nation on civil rights. … And it’s going to be the same with the Muslim community and the Hispanic community. …
The Republican Party, if they want Muslim votes … then they’re going to have to do something for them. I would say that the Republican Party should say that we’re four-square against religious bigotry. They shouldn’t let people like Frank Gaffney associate with them, or Pam Geller for that matter. These are people from the organised Muslim hate industry – and they should be sent away.
And it’s not impossible, because there have been Republicans who’ve done some decent things like Chris Christie, John McCain, who stood up for inclusion and equality and stood against bigotry and fear-mongering. … But I do fear that part of the Republican overall strategy is to demonise and scapegoat minorities.
SB: But do you think that kind of strategy wins more votes?
KE: I think in a nation that is increasingly browning, it will be less and less successful. It used to be that one could win a national election by getting a majority of the white vote. Now you can lose the majority of the white vote and still win an election. Clinton did it, Obama did it. …
If they [Republicans] want to do better, they need to go back to their core message of limited government, lower taxes, supporting small business. … Anglo-Saxon Protestant straight white males who are not in unions, who are not liberals, who are not in environmental groups – the group they’re catering to is shrinking. They just really need a wake-up call if they want to be a viable party in the next few years.