Keith Ellison, the most prominent Muslim elected official in America, was having a pretty good day.
Never mind that the Republican front-runner in the presidential contest – Donald Trump – had proposed to temporarily bar all people of the congressman’s faith from entering the United States, roughly a quarter of the world’s population. Never mind that his House colleague – Indiana Democratic Rep. Andre Carson, the only other Muslim in Congress – received another death threat. And never mind that a Republican colleague – Iowa Rep. Steve King – was, at that very moment, questioning his patriotism in the press, saying the Detroit-born progressive Democrat has not sufficiently denounced Sharia law. Ellison had greeted King with a smile several times that day, even shaking his hand.
Ellison fiercely clung to the upside in the explosive hate speech around him, insisting – despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and other harsh anti-Muslim diatribes – that everything was just fine. “I’ve got to be honest, I don’t really absorb the negativity too much. ... If you’re too sensitive here, it’s just hard to go on. You know what I mean?” Ellison said in an interview.
Ellison even found a silver lining in Trump’s call to stop Muslims from entering the country. There’s a “message of hope” in Trump’s “foolishness” because it’s “so damn desperate,” he said. “There is no confidence in it. It shows weakness and fear.”
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The Minnesota Democrat, 52, who is representing Minneapolis in his fifth term in Congress, insisted on normalcy as he went about his business, shuttling on Wednesday morning from speeches to markups to meetings as if nothing were amiss. Even behind closed doors, neither he nor his staff mentioned Trump, or San Bernardino, or Paris, or even the startling news that Carson received a death threat.
Ellison made an early-morning speech to Democratic state lawmakers, improvising remarks that spanned abortion, gun control, climate change, voting rights, the minimum wage, race relations, and yes, religious discrimination. But he never said Trump by name. Later, he went about the chores of representing his constituents, calling a federal official to record an interview for his podcast and floating amendments in a House Financial Services Committee markup.
But the congressman’s routine belied the chaos engulfing Muslims around the country. Following the California shooting by a couple who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, anti-Muslim violence appears to be escalating. A shop owner in New York City was savagely beaten last weekend by a stranger promising to “kill Muslims,” while a Muslim man praying and playing volleyball in a San Francisco Bay area park was struck by a woman saying he was “deceived by Satan.” In Philadelphia, a severed pig’s head was discovered outside a mosque, interrupting morning prayers.
Yet this is not so extraordinary, Carson and Ellison note. They have faced multiple threats on their lives since arriving in Congress. Each has received police protection for periods of time while on the job. They say they trust the Capitol Police, which is investigating the most recent threat against Carson, to sort things out.
Ellison, who called optimism his “weakness,” admitted he might be deluding himself.
“It might be better to see things only as they are, as opposed to seeing the positive spin on stuff,” he mused. “I am optimistic. But I tend to be right! I mean, if you look at history, why not be optimistic? ... The only reason to go pessimistic is if we’re not doing nothing about what we’re facing. But we are, we are.”
“You know, you can’t control when you’re coming or going out of this world,” he said of the threats. “So I don’t really worry about it. Never occurs to me.”
Trump’s rise is a painful reminder to U.S. Muslims that some Americans remain uncomfortable with them – more than half have a “somewhat” or “very unfavorable” view of Islam, according to one poll taken earlier this year. Forty-two percent of Republicans and 38 percent of GOP primary voters support Trump’s plan to temporarily prevent Muslims from entering the country (although 57 percent of Americans oppose it).
Ellison, an African-American convert to Islam, has faced this discomfort from colleagues in the House.
After Ellison’s election in 2006, for example, former Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., called on constituents to embrace strict immigration laws, lest more Muslims get elected to Congress and choose to be sworn in on the Koran. (Ellison did this, sparking controversy on the right.)
It’s hard not to take colleagues’ comments personally, Ellison said. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., in 2007 argued the United States should bomb Mecca and Medina. Former Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., wrote a foreword to the 2009 book Muslim Mafia, which argued that the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim advocacy group, is allied with terrorists. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said 80 percent of U.S. mosques are radicalized.
At the office on Thursday, Ellison aides related stories about the hateful phone calls he receives daily, even when Trump is not fanning the flames of discord. Callers typically argue that the constitution bars Muslims from serving in office. It does not. They are young and old, and from around the county. Some sound drunk, aides said.
It’s a strange time for the congressman’s staff, which largely avoids talking about Islam, even as the phone rings with slurs and insults against their boss. There are no Muslim aides in the Washington office, and outside of a Koran on Ellison’s desk, hardly any obvious evidence of his faith.
Ellison would prefer not to discuss his religion at work. But like it or not, he is a spokesman for Islam, especially when it is under attack.
On Wednesday, he made time for at least two national hits on cable television, where he called for “good Americans” to stand up against anti-Muslim rhetoric. He admitted later that talking about his religion on TV can be difficult.
“I don’t want my country to become a fascist state, so what am I going to do, not talk about it?” he said after an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “But I don’t really see myself as a spokesman for the Muslim community. I’m not a scholar of Islamic history or jurisprudence or anything. I’m just, like, a guy.”
“I’ve never gotten up in front of a Muslim congregation and played the role of a religious leader, and I decline those invitations because that’s not what I am,” he said. “So for me to get up and be like, ‘blah, blah, blah,' that’s not really right. Just because you get a microphone shoved in your face doesn’t mean you have to start blabbing when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Muslims made up an estimated 3 percent of Ellison’s district when he was elected, and he is observant, though private, when it comes to his faith. Ellison adheres to the pillars of Islam, including fasting for Ramadan, and holds a regular discussion group on Islamic topics. During a tense week like last, he is in close contact with friends in the Muslim community, including Dalia Mogahed of Washington’s Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; Dalia Mahmoud of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and his imam in Minneapolis, Makram El-Amin, a close confidant.
Ellison reflected on his choice to become a Muslim at age 19 as he left an event honoring the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery.
“Anybody who knows precisely and exactly why they would convert from one religion to another, God bless them, because I have no idea,” he said. “All I know is that it worked for me at the time. I felt this was the right thing for me to do, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t know how to pinpoint the spiritual yearning, but I know it is there, and I can also tell you it was the social justice aspect that attracted me.”
Ellison has worked hard to craft the résumé of a progressive crusader. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, he joined protesters – including his son, whose confrontation with armed policemen was captured in an image that went viral – demonstrating against the shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. He sees his activism as the outgrowth of his faith.
“When I first went to Friday prayer with a friend of mine, before I identified as a Muslim, the sermon was about the mission of Muhammad to liberate the oppressed in the city of Mecca,” Ellison said. “And it was about the story of Bilal, an Ethiopian slave who adhered to the preaching that there is only one God and all humanity is one, even ‘under torture.’ I was inspired by that. I read more, and read more, and within about four weeks I had taken shahada, which means to witness.”
Though few staffers have seen it, the congressman practices salat, the ritual of praying in the direction of Mecca five times daily, in his private office. He keeps a small carpet nearby for this purpose, and a Koran lies open on his desk.
Ellison recited the shahada – the Muslim profession of faith that says there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet – in Arabic as he walked to the House floor for votes.
“When I hear about these terrorist ideologies, they are completely foreign and strange to me,” he said. “I mean, to me, it’s like antithetical. It’s the weirdest thing in the world. ... It just goes to prove that people can distort anything.”