Thursday, November 16, 2006

Congress' first Muslim can build bridges

November 16, 2006

Keith Ellison pumps his fist during his acceptance speech last week in Minneapolis, Minn., after being electing the first Muslim in Congress.

The election of Keith Ellison to Congress is a victory for the 7 million Muslims living in the United States. And it's a victory for America.

Ellison will represent Minnesota's 5th Congressional District -- proof positive of Muslim integration into American society.

A 43-year-old black state legislator, Ellison will be the first nonwhite to represent Minnesota in Washington. And when he takes his seat in Congress next January, he will also be the first Muslim to do so.

Ellison's campaign brought people together from all walks of life. It earned him diverse endorsements, from the Somali-American Democratic Association to the American Jewish World newspaper.

Like members of other religious groups, Muslim-Americans are not monolithic in their views.

Public opinion surveys conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations reveal that Muslim-Americans tend to be left-leaning when it comes to social justice issues, the environment and foreign policy, and right-leaning when it comes to family values and taxes.

On issues like the war in Iraq, universal health care and increased school funding, Ellison is in sync with the opinions of most other Muslims. Yet his pro-choice stance on abortion, his support for gay rights and his support for Israel are in sharp contrast to the sentiments of most Muslims.

Ellison's election sends a positive message to the world.

About 1.5 billion Muslims witnessed firsthand the tolerance of the American people --or at least Minnesotans -- in electing a Muslim to Congress. The headline of a report by the Malaysian National News Agency read, "First American Muslim Congressman Crashes the Thick Glass Ceiling."

Not everyone in the Muslim world was happy with the win. Extremist Web sites were full of postings condemning Ellison. One blogger wrote, "May Allah destroy you."

Such vitriol could also be found on radical anti-Muslim Web sites that often accuse prominent Muslims for having "ties to terrorism" in order to malign them and diminish their power.

For those who think that the story here is Ellison's religion, they are woefully missing the point.

The blunders of the Bush administration have caused a great number of Muslims to believe that the global war on terror is nothing more than a war on Islam.

Muslim-American leaders have long insisted that the government use them to build bridges of trust and understanding between America and the Muslim world.

Rightfully so, they have argued that Muslims in America are the most valuable tool --and the most underused -- in America's broad arsenal to protect the homeland.

Now that he's going to Washington, Ellison can become more than a political novelty. He can further America's necessary dialogue with the Muslim world.

RAEED N. TAYEH is author of "A Muslim's Guide to American Politics and Government." He wrote this piece for Progressive Media Project, which is affiliated with the Progressive magazine. Write to him at Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703, or at

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