Monday, June 19, 2006

Keith Ellison and the new Muslim-American experience

A column I wrote for a class last quarter...

You think driving black is tough, try flying Muslim.

Fortunately for me, a white Muslim-American, I only worry about the latter.

But Keith Ellison, who could become the first Muslim congressman in American history and first black representative from Minnesota, probably has some reservations about both.

Ellison, a 42-year-old two-term state representative, just secured the Democratic endorsement for Minnesota’s Fifth District, a safe Democratic seat that represents one of the most liberal constituencies in the country.

Although the outgoing congressman’s chief of staff announced he will oppose Ellison in the September primary, observers say the state rep. has made great gains in garnering mass support including Labor that makes him the favorite to win the Democratic ticket.

And, again, it’s a safe Democratic district.

Thank God.

I was beginning to worry a little. It’s one thing to talk about being Muslim-American, and another to talk about living it.

Keith Ellison helps with the latter.

An African-American convert to Islam who originally hails from Detroit, Ellison is what we, Muslim-Americans, and Americans in general need to see more, especially considering poll numbers released by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in late March.

In its “Prospects for Inter-Religious Understanding” survey, Pew found that 55 percent of Americans in general have a favorable view of Muslims, while 41 percent have a favorable view of Islam as a religion.

Those numbers aren’t that bad. The Forum said in its report, “It is also noteworthy that the number of Americans expressing favorable views toward Muslim-Americans (55%) closely rivals the number expressing favorable attitudes toward evangelical Christians (57%). And Muslim-Americans are viewed much more favorably by the public than are
atheists, about whom Americans express a particularly high level of discomfort.”

But, then again, we Muslim-Americans don’t exactly have the same clout as our white evangelical Christians friends, especially in Washington.

But that could change.

“I think it’s time for the United States to see a moderate Muslim voice, to see a face of Islam that is just like everybody else’s face,” Ellison told the D.C. newspaper The Hill. “Perhaps it would be good for somebody who is Muslim to be in Congress, so that Muslims would feel like they are part of the body politic and that other Americans would know that we’re here to make a contribution to this country.”

It’s also a plus that Ellison is not the clich├ęd Muslim dressed in foreign garb. He delivers crowd-rousing speeches donned in sharp suits that remind me more of the Midwest than the MidEast.

But it’s not only his appearance that resonates with Americans; it’s also his name.

As the Muslim commentator Hesham Hassaballa wrote recently, The more non-Muslim Americans learn that their friends and neighbors who are named “John” and “Jennifer” are Muslims, the more they will come to see Islam as truly part of the American fabric - which it is - as opposed to some foreign force that was transplanted here. In addition, the beautiful diversity of the American Muslim community is only enhanced when more converts choose to keep the names of their birth after their conversion to Islam.”

It’s true. The fact that a Muslim named Keith is running on a progressive platform that some liken to that of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, the African-American lawyer and democrat is a wonderful example of American Islam’s diversity. This, especially considering some Muslims can be more socially conservative than even right-wing evangelicals.

Aside, though, from the specifics of outward appearances and political platforms, Ellison needs no words to confront anti-Muslim myth and machination alike. His running for Congress defies the common stereotypes: Islam is not compatible with democracy; Muslims hate the West, etc.

And this is most important of all. Especially for we Muslim-Americans, all 7 million of us, who love this country and are proud to be apart of it.

That there is a political process in this country that supports Muslim-American efforts in the political arena such as Ellison’s, I have the Christian founders of this country to thank.

And for this, I’ll say it again.

Thank God.

1 comment:

munaal-aseer said...

Great article. It is what we all need to hear. Well written, expressing what we, Muslim Americans feel.