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The most prominent Muslim elected official in

America sees a message of hope in Trumps


weakness
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of Congresss two Muslim lawmakers, says its business
as usual despite Donald Trumps proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from the country.
Here, he is with colleagues at a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the
passage of the 13th Amendment on December 9, 2015. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The
Washington Post)

By Elise Viebeck-December 13

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 congressmans faith from entering the United
States, roughly a quarter of the worlds 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 Trumps inflammatory rhetoric and other harsh anti-Muslim diatribes that
everything was just fine. I gotta be honest, I dont really absorb the negativity too much If
youre too sensitive here, its just hard to go on. You know what I mean? Ellison said in an
interview.
Ellison even found a silver lining in Trumps call to stop Muslims from entering the country.

Theres a message of hope in Trumps foolishness because its so damn desperate, he


said. There is no confidence in it. It shows weakness and fear.
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 congressmans 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 pigs 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 were not doing nothing about what
were facing. But we are, we are.
You know, you cant control when youre coming or going out of this world, he said of the
threats. So I dont really worry about it. Never occurs to me.
Trumps 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 voterssupport Trumps 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 Ellisons 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.)
Its 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.
Its a strange time for the congressmans 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 Ellisons desk, hardly any obvious evidence of
his faith.

Ellison chats with staffers and a reporter prior to doing a live interview on
MSNBC. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

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 dont 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 MSNBCs Andrea Mitchell. But I dont really see myself as a
spokesman for the Muslim community. Im not a scholar of Islamic history or jurisprudence or
anything. Im just, like, a guy.
Ive never gotten up in front of a Muslim congregation and played the role of a religious
leader, and I decline those invitations because thats not what I am, he said. So for me to get
up and be like, blah, blah, blah, thats not really right. Just because you get a microphone
shoved in your face doesnt mean you have to start blabbing when you dont know what youre
talking about.
Muslims made up an estimated 3 percent of Ellisons 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 Washingtons 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 Ive been doing it ever since. I dont
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.

A Koran and prayer beads lay in a prominent spot on Ellisons desk. (Photo
by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
Ellison has worked hard to craft the resume 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, its like antithetical. Its the weirdest thing in the world It just goes
to prove that people can distort anything.

A closer look at Ellisons Koran and prayer beads. (Photo by Linda


Davidson / The Washington Post)

Elise Viebeck is a national enterprise reporter for The Washington Post.