Muslim Congressman: Bin Laden's Death Signals Change In Afghanistan

As President Obama heads to Ground Zero to honor 9/11 victims, questions remain about what Osama bin Laden's killing means for the war on terror and for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Host Michel Martin speaks with Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, who is renewing his call to draw down troops in Afghanistan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, President Obama has called for more cooperation and unity in the wake of the successful raid on Osama bin Laden, but will the Congress hear that call on domestic issues like immigration? We'll speak with the chair of the Hispanic caucus in a few minutes. He just met with the president. That's coming up a little later.

Also, it's Cinco de Mayo, but not everybody is drinking the tequila. We'll hear why. That's also later. But first, on a more somber note, President Obama visits Ground Zero today to honor the victims of September 11. The president, in his address to the nation announcing the death of bin Laden, asked Americans to remember that the war on terror is not a war against Islam.

We wanted to talk more about why that message might be necessary, so we've called, once again, Representative Keith Ellison from Minnesota. He represents the 5th District of Minnesota. He's also the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, and he's with us from the House Recording Studio on Capitol Hill. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us once again.

KEITH ELLISON: Thanks again, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you, like many people are comparing notes on where they were and what they were doing when they heard the word about this important historic event. So can I ask you that, where were you and what you were doing?

ELLISON: Yeah. I had a cold the night before, so I went to bed early. I woke up around 4:30 in the morning, flipped on National Public Radio, and I heard the story about Osama bin Laden. I couldn't believe it. I was thoroughly shocked, then I was relieved, you know. He is the foremost promoter of mayhem, murder, terrorism in the world.

And not only that, I mean, he killed 3,000 Americans, but he also killed people in Tanzania, Kenya, the USS Cole. And then if you look across countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaida is responsible for literally countless deaths. And so, you know, the fact the he wasn't around anymore, was a source of relief for me.

MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar, who is a columnist and - he's a lawyer, well-known activist - wrote a column for CNN.com pointing out that bin Laden's terror activities and those that he put into motion, those that he inspired, have probably killed more Muslims than anybody else. Do you think that this is a reason to rejoice?

ELLISON: Well, you know what, I'm not one who rejoices or celebrates the death of any person, even an evil person. And so - but I do think, I agree with his essential point which is that Muslims have as much reason to feel relief at the exit of Osama bin Laden as anyone else, but even an additional reason. And that additional reason is this: Perhaps more than anyone else, he has made many people around the world believe that somehow Islam and terrorism were associated with each other. He is the foremost defamer of Islam in my view. The fact is, when people think that Islam is somehow connected to terrorism, you cannot separate that thought from Osama bin Laden.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about one issue that's in the news today, which is the whole question of whether the photographs of Osama bin Laden should be released. The White House has made the decision not to release those photographs. President Obama explained why in an interview with "60 Minutes" on CBS. They just released a couple of quotes from the interview. This is what he had to say about that.

(Soundbite of TV Show "60 Minutes")

President BARACK OBAMA: It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.

MARTIN: The president went on to say we don't need to spike the football, and by that I assume he means that he doesn't want there to be an air of kind of triumphalism about it. On the other hand, there are other people saying that there are people who don't believe that it is he, that they don't believe that he is dead. And it's worth remembering that in some parts of the world, there are many people who didn't believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks. What do you think about that?

ELLISON: Well, I think eventually they will be released, and I say that only because, you know, I know the American press is just not going to stop until they get that information. But I do agree with the president that it doesn't need to be released now. I mean, Osama bin Laden's death is fresh, and the last thing we need is to send out some photographs that could have an incendiary effect and could perhaps spike, you know, reaction, and be a stimulus for somebody's, you know, exaggerated response.

But, you know, I also do think this. You know, the people who are conspiratorialists around Osama bin Laden or 9/11, they're not going to stop. I mean, if you gave them the photographs, if you gave them the body, they would still say somehow it was doctored, somehow it wasn't right, somehow it was still all of a fake.

At the end of the day, I think that the president's right in coming to the conclusion that the conspiratorialists are not going to stop conspiratorializing, if that's a word, just because you give them some photographs.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about one other issue before we move to sort of broader policy issues that you're involved with, and that's the whole question of the manner of his burial, that Osama bin Laden was buried at sea according to U.S. officials. They say that he was accorded some burial rites. But there are some overseas who are criticizing this, saying that the burial at sea does not conform to Muslim practice. But others disagree.

For example, Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations has a different perspective. I can play that short clip if you care to hear it.

ELLISON: Sure.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of Audio Clip)

NIHAD AWAD: The most important issue is that this terrorist has been eliminated. And Muslims do not care about the details of how he was buried.

MARTIN: And I don't want to make you the spokesperson for all Muslims, but I did want to ask: What is your perspective on this?

ELLISON: I agree with Nihad. The fact is that from what I hear he was wrapped in the - what we call a rham(ph) in Islam. It's a white sheet, and he was washed ritually as is in accordance with burial rites. I heard that those things were done. And also, you know, Islam, you know, things are flexible. I mean, if you're on water, you can bury somebody at sea. If you're on land, you should bury them in the ground. What you cannot do is mutilate the body. That would be highly offensive.

But, I mean, the fact that it was at sea I don't think presents a real problem. But, of course, let me just say this. I am not a religious authority. I cannot speak authoritatively about proper burial rituals any more than a layman Christian could try to speak as a priest might, you know.

MARTIN: No. I think the question was whether it offended your sensibilities.

ELLISON: No.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with Congressman Keith Ellison. He represents the 5th District of Minnesota. He's also the first Muslim-American elected to Congress. Not the last, just the first.

I wanted to ask more broadly, you wrote a letter yesterday along with other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to the president calling for a more aggressive drawdown of forces - U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Would you tell us more about your perspective on this?

ELLISON: Well, I think that we've been in Afghanistan for well over 10 years now. It's been too long, and the initial purpose for us going there was to eliminate al-Qaida. Even the most well-informed intelligence officials will tell you that there's fewer than a hundred al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and now we've learned that, you know, Osama bin Laden wasn't even in Afghanistan, and now he's off the scene.

So because of that, I think it's about time for us to do that drawdown, and it should be significant. There's no real reason for us to be there. And I don't think we should abandon Afghanistan, I just think that our military footprint there needs to be dramatically reduced.

MARTIN: Is that because the military presence there has succeeded or because it has no chance to succeed?

ELLISON: Well, I think they've done all they can do. But here's the thing, you know, somehow - and I'm not suggesting you're saying this - but somehow in the minds of many, you know, we want to win. And so I think our framework for winning is like well, the Civil War, you know, blue against the gray. Or maybe World War II, you know, defeating Hitler.

And, you know, I just think it's - we have done what there is to do. You're not going to take what was one of the poorest countries in the world and transform it into, you know, a modern, industrial democracy. It's just not going to happen. It's going to take a long time, and it's going to take the initiative and prerogative of the Afghan people.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, do you have any final thoughts about this historic moment, sort of going forward what you think the death of bin Laden means, you know, for the world, for relations between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world, you know, going forward? I mean, there are those who say that he was a waning force, anyway, that he really had played, like, no role in the Arab Spring and the kind of the thirst for, you know, freedom that we're seeing in, you know, many Arab and Muslim countries.

There are others who say that that's just naive, that he has, in fact, been a strong and important tactical leader throughout, and that this is a really significant development in the war on terror. And I'd just like to ask your perspective on that. You know, going forward, what do you think this means?

ELLISON: Well, I think that the Arab Spring and the emergence of democratic movements in the Middle East is a stunning rejection of al-Qaidaism. So - but I also think that it's true. He was an important symbolic and iconic figure to al-Qaidaism, which I believe was rejected. We talk about the death of Osama bin Laden. I think if you can signal the death of Osama bin Laden, it might have been more metaphorically in Tahrir Square, because that was where people sought to change their government through peaceful, democratic means, through freedom of expression.

That was where his whole philosophy, everything he stood for, everything he wrote about, everything he ever said was stunningly rebuked by the very people who he claimed to be fighting for. I think the thing that we've got to do now is build a rich network of connections with the Arab and Muslim world.

We need to increase Fulbright scholarships. We need to increase the International Visitors Program. We need to increase academic exchange. We need to do more with that part of the world, because one, it's 350 million people, which is well-endowed with resources. And our relationship with that part of the world has been very, very thin, you know, basically oil. You know, Israel and terrorism have been our basic points of connection with the Middle East.

Now, we need to have more connections and increase the number of connections, and do more to try to have a more complicated, enriched relationship. So I think there's a lot to do, very tall order, and democracy is not guaranteed in the Arab world. As we see Libya and Syria unfolding right now, and even Yemen, you know, there's a lot of different ways this thing could turn out. But I think the United States - which cannot control everything - needs to be that source of saying: You know what? We want the relationship, and we are going to be consistent, and we are going to embrace and support democracy in this region.

MARTIN: Congressman Keith Ellison represents the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota. That includes Minneapolis and surrounding areas. He happens to be the first Muslim-American elected to Congress. He's also a member of the House Financial Services Committee. Congressman Ellison, thank you so much for joining us, once again.

ELLISON: Any time.

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