MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
And now it's time for Faith Matters. It's the part of the program where we explore matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we're going to hear from a member of Congress who just completed a very special journey and not one of those junkets we hear so much about. December marked the beginning of the Hajj, the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith. Muslims are required to undertake the sacred pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes if they are able-bodied and can afford it. Congressman Keith Ellison is the first Muslim American to be elected to Congress. He's also the first sitting member to make the Hajj, and he joins us now from his office in Minneapolis to talk about his trip. Congressman, welcome back and welcome back to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.
KEITH ELLISON: Hey there, Michel. How are you doing?
MARTIN: I'm great. Thank you. So first of all, what is the Hajj? Why is it so important?
ELLISON: The Hajj is so important because what it does is it connects the Muslim with an article of faith that is essentially a congregational event. It connects you with the body, the world - the Muslim world in effect, and brings you to do certain Hajj rituals that are all sort of something you do with people to sort of remind you of your faith in a very big way. The Hajj is about a cleansing. It's about renewal. It's about fellowship, and it's also about just the inner journey of reflecting upon your own life and purpose.
MARTIN: This is something that one is expected to undertake at some point in your life. Why did you decide to go this year?
ELLISON: Well, you know, it just seemed like things were coming together pretty well. When I made plans to go, it looked like we were going to be out of session. We ended up having some overlap with the auto thing, but it just seemed like an opportune time, and I also believe, and this is part of Islamic faith, that when the opportunity to go to Hajj presents itself, you go. And to simply delay it is not the preferable thing to do.
MARTIN: And do I have it right that you actually start planning months in advance?
ELLISON: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: That preparations are made quite far in advance?
ELLISON: Well, yeah, because, for example, I have an American name, I needed to get a letter from my imam so that I can make the Hajj, you know.
MARTIN: Somebody has to vouch for the fact that you are indeed a Muslim.
ELLISON: That's right. That's right.
MARTIN: Because non-Muslims are not even permitted in the city of Mecca. Is that right?
ELLISON: That's what I hear, but I saw a whole lot of people running around Mecca, and so I can't guarantee that they all were Muslim. But the ones who were doing Tawaf, which is making the seven circumlocutions around the Ka'bah, they would be all Muslim.
MARTIN: As I understand it, it's actually a very physically demanding experience.
ELLISON: Hajj is partly ordeal, if you understand what I mean. There's a lot of walking. There's a lot of working yourself through large numbers of people. You spend the night outside under the stars one day in Hajj, which is a placed called Muzdalifa, where you just spend the night outside. You do a lot of walking, and it is partially ordeal, and this is designed to teach you patience and to teach you that, you know what? There's no big rush. We're all here. We're all going to get this thing done, and to just savor the moment.
MARTIN: Speaking of the fact that, you know, we're all here, part of the Hajj is that everyone dresses in white.
ELLISON: That's right. But, well, it's not just white, though. It's two sheets that are unstitched together. They're not sewn, or you don't zip them up, and that's all you wear, is two sheets.
MARTIN: And part of that message is that all are equal before God.
ELLISON: That's right.
MARTIN: And forgive me, I have to ask you because as a member of Congress, you're kind of used to being treated a little bit specially. You know, there's a special elevator for you in the Capitol. You have your special pin and people do get out of your way when you're in a hurry. Not that I'm saying you're putting on airs or anything, but the fact is that you are, you know, treated kind of - you're one of only 535, and was it hard for you to adjust to being just one of the many?
ELLISON: It was really refreshing for me. It was a very warm experience to just be among everybody, no security, no nothing, just me and all the other three million Muslims who were there. It was great. But I will tell you this, I did have my own minor spiritual crisis because when people were bumping into me in the crowd, and there was a lot of bumping and jostling, I found myself getting slightly irritated by that. But then, you know, it occurred to me that, you know, I'm not being hurt. I'm not being injured at all. I'm just being kind of shuffled around. And I realized that my sense of personal dignity was being sort of challenged as I was being bumped into, and that was a spiritual lesson that I had to learn that, look, man, it's no problem. You know, folks are here, they're making - they're heeding the call of their Lord just like you, and the fact that somebody seems to be in a rush or seems to be, you know, bumping you a little bit is really nothing for you to be concerned about. So, little tiny spiritual lessons like that were going on all the time during the Hajj experience.
MARTIN: Clearly, you're not from New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ELLISON: Yeah, I'm from the midwest, where there's plenty of space out here.
MARTIN: Now, I wanted to ask, though, you mentioned earlier that the trip in a way conflicted with a special session that was called to deal with the question of the bailout for the auto industry. Did you wind up having to miss part of the session to make the trip?
ELLISON: Yeah, I did, and that's unfortunate. I was sorry about that. I did contact Nancy Pelosi beforehand and told her about the trip, and she said, you know, go ahead and go, and we feel that, you know, we'll be fine with you doing the Hajj and us doing what we got to do.
MARTIN: What about your constituents? Did you get any flack for that?
ELLISON: No. Didn't hear any negative feedback on that. I mean, as you know, ultimately it failed anyway, didn't make it through the Senate.
MARTIN: Well, because you are - you were the first Muslim American elected to the Congress; you are not now the only Muslim American serving in the Congress - I did wonder whether you felt a little bit of a conflict there in the sense that you are a role model, and there has been some negative dialogue around the religion over the course of this election.
MARTIN: For example, there was all this discussion about whether Barack Obama would take the oath of office on the Koran, even though he is not a Muslim. There was all this - as you know, because we discussed it on this program...
ELLISON: You bet.
MARTIN: Discussion in the blogosphere saying that he really is a Muslim and we talked about just how painful that is to have your religion used as a slight, as something derogatory.
ELLISON: Yeah. Well, you know, there are people who felt that part of their campaign strategy to defeat him would be to identify him as a Muslim, which you know is somewhat disconcerting, but the people who made that argument, I think, learned that the American people are essentially fair and tolerant when it comes to religious diversity.
MARTIN: And speaking of that, when you were first elected, and there was a lot of buzz around the fact that you were the first Muslim elected to the Congress...
ELLISON: Yeah, we got a little attention on that.
MARTIN: Got a little attention on that and not all of it was welcome. I remember that, you know, you did not welcome interviews around that subject alone. I think you said, as I recall, or your representative said on your behalf that you wanted to focus on the substance of your work as a member.
ELLISON: Yeah, and it's true.
MARTIN: What about now though? Do you feel perhaps a little more relaxed about talking about your faith?
ELLISON: I don't know. You know, you're kind of a special person, Michel, so I made an exception for you. But in general I like to talk about my work on the Financial Services Committee and Judiciary and things like this. I mean, I'm a Muslim and I'm proud to be one, but at the same time, you know, I wasn't elected based on my religion, I was elected to serve the community. And I'd rather talk about the things that we all share, we all are concerned about. You know, whether it be the financial meltdown, water, air, you know, renewable energy. Those are the things that I think I should properly address myself to. Now, given that particular posture that the United States and Muslim world are in right now, I think people have found that I might be helpful in shedding light on what Islam is all about, what Muslims are all about. And so I've stepped up to the plate to do that. I mean, anytime Voice of America or the State Department has called upon me to sort of participate in some public diplomacy I've never declined. But all of that is related to my service as a United States congressman. If a member of Congress has some unique insider sensitivity that can help the nation, then I think they should always do it.
MARTIN: Finally, may I ask, and it is a personal question, for many people making the Hajj as a very profound and transformative experience.
ELLISON: It was for me.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask, do you feel changed by it?
ELLISON: Yes, I do. I feel changed. I feel renewed, transformed. I feel a certain sense of recommitment to the principles that have been guiding me. I have a brand new appreciation for how important it is for us to reach across culture and religion and really build those bridges. And you know, it was really clear, you know, that the Muslim world really, you know, has a lot to offer, and the United States has so much that it has given the world and a lot to offer. And those of us who are the overwhelming and vast majority need to try to build links between, you know. And I think that it's something that I've rededicated myself to doing.
MARTIN: Keith Ellison represents the 5th District of Minnesota in the United States Congress. He is a Democrat. He just returned from Mecca where he took part in the Hajj. He joined us from his office in Minnesota. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ELLISON: Anytime, Michel. See you later.
MARTIN: If you want to learn more about the Hajj and what it entails, we will have information on our Web site. Please go to npr.org/tellmemore.