First Muslim Congressman Prepares to Take Seat in Congress

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN) will be the first black lawmaker in Minnesota sent to Congress. He's also the first Muslim congressman in U.S. history. Host Farai Chideya talks with Ellison about his politics, his faith, and where the two meet.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Congress will have a big incoming freshman class this January but few of the recent winners had to overcome the same odds as Minnesota's Keith Ellison. He's the first black representative from Minnesota and the first Muslim congressman ever. Congressman-elect Keith Ellison is at NPR's Washington D.C. headquarters. Welcome.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): Glad to be here, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Well, first off, congratulations. How does it feel to have won?

Representative ELLISON: Well, thank you. It feels great, you know, I mean, I come from a fantastic district of Minnesota and it's going to be a real honor to represent them.

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about your district and your voters.

Representative ELLISON: Well, we have a very engaged active group of folks in Minnesota. We have a long tradition of sending people to Congress and to the Senate who really help lead the nation. Hubert Humphrey, as an example, but also Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy and, of course, the late Paul Wellstone.

I can tell you that somewhere out on the prairies of Minnesota, people got the idea that people of this country are sovereign, and that the people should lead the nation, and the public good should be first and foremost, not the private gain of a few.

And where they actually found that idea might be found in the native tribes that were there; could be found in the liberal ideals that come from Scandinavia, were many Minnesotans come from; or could be from our strong labor tradition, of course, Minnesota has a wonderful history of organized labor.

And but, you know, we do have an enlighten population in Minnesota; however, we got it - that's what we have now.

CHIDEYA: So you're originally from Motown and I understand that you converted to Islam in college. Why did you convert and what does that religion mean to you?

Representative ELLISON: Whoever knows exactly why a person chooses to follow a different spiritual path, I'm not sure I could tell you that. But what I can tell you is that I'm strongly attracted by the social justice, egalitarian ideas in Islam. But you know - it only - again, you know, a person's faith is like a marriage, you start out, seeing if it's going to work out - overtime, it just grows and deepens and becomes part of who you are.

CHIDEYA: Part of your history also is environmental activism, environmental justice.

Representative ELLISON: Yup.

CHIDEYA: Tell me what, exactly, your history is with that? How did you get involved and what were some of the things that you've done that you're proud of?

Representative ELLISON: Well, you know, just walking around my district, I found that there was just a large number of kids who had inhalers and they were relying on these inhalers to get through the day. And as I talked to teachers and people who spend a lot of time with young people, you know, I found that we really had what I would describe as an epidemic of asthma.

And so as I begun to think about how we deal with this and address this, a few causes became unavoidable. You know, we had to look at traffic and how close kids live to traffic, which is highly correlated with asthma. And then proximity to coal-burning electricity plants, and of course, we live right near one in North Minneapolis of where I'm from.

So, you know, those two things became a big concern and so I got active in trying to get community to help convert the coal plant in our neighborhood to natural gas, which has much lower emissions, particulate matter, mercury and a lot of other dangerous emissions.

CHIDEYA: Were you successful?

Representative ELLISON: Yep, but I got to say that I didn't do it anywhere close to by myself. There was a whole broad movement and we were a part of it, but definitely a part of it. And so from there, you know, I help start an organization called the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota. And we worked on protecting people from lead, worked on mercury, worked on other pesticides and things that really have a negative impact on our health from an environmental standpoint.

CHIDEYA: So what in your upbringing or what in your childhood led you to have a passion for justice?

Representative ELLISON: I don't know, you know, I was raised in a household where issues of civil rights and justice were discussed on a regular basis. You know, my mother's father, whose name is Frank Martinez, was organizing black voters in rural Louisiana in the ‘50s, you know.

And she grew up telling us about how they would receive threats and had crosses burned on their front lawn. And it really was a topic that made a great impression on me.

And, you know, my father was one who discussed issues in politics around the dinner table. And so it really wasn't that unusual for me to gravitate toward political activism, trying to make a change, trying to include more people, make our society live up to the ideals that are stated in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

CHIDEYA: I talk to a lot of younger people about politics, people from the hip-hop generation in particular, who are just like, it's a fool's game. It's rigged. Everyone is dirty. How do you deal with that kind of attitude for example?

Representative ELLISON: Well it's, you know, what the - it's what the right - far-right wing wants them to believe. I mean, they basically drank the Kool-Aid when they say stuff like that.

You know, the people who want to give tax breaks to the top one percent, the people who don't want environmental regulation, the people who want to charge our seniors exorbitant prices for medication - these people hope that our young, hip-hop generation feels that it's all rigged and there's nothing they can do, and they just should bow out. They hope that happens.

But the most activist thing you can do is to get involved, is to play a role. And you know, here's a thing, you know, slavery was a horrible epoch in American history 243 years of, you know, slavery - horrible. But we have to remember that the abolitionists were there fighting it and the abolitionists won.

We got to remember that till 1920, till all adults could vote, but you know, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other great - and Frederick Douglas, by the way, fought for universal suffrage and they won. And you know, the people in the Civil Rights Movement, they defeated Jim Crow.

So every time you point to some negative piece of American history - and there have been some ugly periods - there have been people who have stood up for what was right and have generally prevailed over time. And so I say to my brothers and sisters and the hip-hop generation, you know, write a song about how, you know, how we got to have more justice, how we got to expand democracy, how we have to respect the sisters and the women in this world, and how we got turn away from this crass commercialism and materialism that is promoted so aggressively. Talk about making America live up to its noblest ideals, that's what I say.

CHIDEYA: What else do you say about what you're going to fight for on Capitol Hill? Because you've been, you know, you've been in politics for a while but this is a whole knew game and Capitol Hill can be kind of chilly place if you are outside of the old boys club.

Representative ELLISON: Well, you know, Farai, we are right up to the challenge, you know. And you know, what I'm going to do is I'm going to - first of all, challenge this war policy in Iraq. I want to join with other members of Congress to say hey, look, you know, this policy not only is destructive to the lives of our soldiers, destructive to the lives of Iraqis but is actually having a corrosive effect on civil and human rights inside of the United States.

Stuff like the Military Commissions Act, which deprives detainees the right to challenge their detention. Stuff like domestic spying. These things are horrible, you know, and they're not in the best tradition of this country. And I'm going to join with other members of Congress of any party, I don't even care, who believed that, you know, we should face the future bravely and not give in to fear because there are some bad people out there who are trying to get us.

CHIDEYA: Do you think - oh, go ahead.

Representative ELLISON: Well, I was just going to say also, you know, we got 47 million uninsured Americans who have nothing but the emergency room to turn to. You know, we're just - we're a sicker nation as a result of it. We got to change this. To me, that means national health insurance. And then of course, you know, we've got to look at middle-class prosperity. You know, hard working Americans have hit - seen flat and declining wages, increased costs for higher education. We got to fight that. We can't let our college campuses be the enclave of the few, the elite, the privileged. Because it was on this college campuses that we've seen some of the best advances in social progress in America.

CHIDEYA: Now, as a Muslim, do you feel obligated to bring your religion to the table, simply in terms of trying to address issues like the war; address issues like detainees; address issues like Israel and Palestine and the conflict between them, or are you going to try to leave your own personal background out of how you lead in Congress? -

You know, Farai, I don't know what role I will play in that regard. My faith, my Islamic beliefs are ones that are not exclusive to Islam. I mean, you know, every faith system - Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, all - you know, we believe in caring for the poor. All of us believe that. All of us believe that we should have justice and real fairness in economics and economic opportunity.

And every ethical and religious system you can name talks about the importance of peace, non-violent resolution of conflict. You know, these are not the exclusive province of any religious system.

Now I may come at it from - my faith informs my values, but other people's faith informs their values. But we arrive at the same place, cause the values are universal even though we may have different ways of seeking God and of praying and engaging in religious ritual.

CHIDEYA: But I, you know, I have to follow up on this. Because when we have a situation now within the United States government and looking outward where religion has become the wedge in American politics in the past few years. Are you afraid of it, are you willing to challenge it as a wedge and talk about it as something that unifies us as you just stated? How are you going to deal with the conflict aspect of this?

Representative ELLISON: Well, you know, that big old mess is going to get sorted out one issue at a time. I see my faith as something that builds bridges - doesn't build walls. I mean, for example, if somebody got up on the House floor and said something misinformed or even bigoted about Islam, of course I would stand up and correct the record and put forth the truth. But that's not something only I would need to do. Anybody could do that if they studied the subject matter.

You know, people who are within this same religion don't always see the faith the same way, right? Because just like you know some evangelical Christians who are to the far right, politically - you know, I've read Jim Wallace's, you know, “God's Politics,” and he doesn't arrive at many of the same conclusions that, you know, those folks do.

So, you know, religion and faith is part of the American fabric. It's one of the reasons why the first amendment says that Congress shall make no law establishing a state religion. That's so we can all pursue God as we see fit. And, you know, this issue of how religion plays out is going to be messy. And we're not always going to agree. But hopefully we can agree that, you know, the state should be neutral ground in which everyone can participate and that the big religious value questions will be played out in our daily lives every day.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Keith Ellison, I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the state of the United States as you get into Congress in January.

Representative ELLISON: Well, I'm glad to be here with you and call on me anytime.

CHIDEYA: All right. Democrat Keith Ellison will soon represent Minnesota's Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He's the first African-American ever elected to Congress from Minnesota and the first Muslim Congressman in U.S. history.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, President Bush's new family planning chief called birth control demeaning to women. And are African-Americans really behind O.J. Simpson? We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable next.

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CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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