Democrat Keith Ellison won a closely watched Minnesota congressional race November 7, making him the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress.
Ellison also is the first black congressman elected from Minnesota. He will fill the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Representative Martin Sabo.
“I think the most important thing about this race is we tried to pull people together on things we all share, things that are important to everyone,” he said in his victory speech. “We were able to bring in Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists.”
Ellison, a two-term state legislator before his run for Congress, has opposed the war in Iraq, and has advocated universal health care for Americans.
Even though he is an observant Muslim, Ellison has not made religion a feature of his campaign.
“People draw strength and moral courage from a variety of religious traditions. Mine have come from both Catholicism and Islam. I was raised Catholic and later became a Muslim while attending Wayne State University. I am inspired by the Quran’s message of an encompassing divine love, and a deep faith guides my life everyday,” he wrote in an article for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“I think it’s time for the United States to see a moderate Muslim voice, to see a face of Islam that is just like everybody else’s face,” he said recently.
Born in Detroit, Ellison received his law degree at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he practices law and where he has lived for the past 17 years. He converted to Islam at the age of 19, saying that as a young man he was outraged by racism and injustice.
Ellison described himself at that age as an angry young social activist, but “I eventually realized that it is easy to be a critic pointing out problems and failings, but it is a far more difficult thing to be part of creating the solution.” He credits his family for steering him onto the right path.
“I began to help create a world where everybody counts and where there are no throwaway people,” he said.
He has a reputation as a bridge-builder, reaching across partisan divides to achieve results. He champions liberal causes, supports raising the minimum wage, environmental protection, abortion rights and increased funding for education.
“Ellison’s election is a good sign for America,” University of Minnesota professor and analyst Lawrence Jacobs told the Washington File. “Muslims who may have been feeling persecuted or locked out of American society will feel a more hopeful side of American society.”
He said it is encouraging for Muslims abroad, also, because it signals willingness to entertain other views. “American diversity works to our advantage with Muslims in positions of political power,” he said.
Although the Midwest often is seen as a conservative bastion, Jacobs said, “Openness is a historical legacy and tradition in the Midwest.” Important civil rights leaders emerged from Minnesota, he added. “Everyone gets a chance on their own record, without regard to race and creed,” he said. “It is a tolerant society.”
American Muslims welcomed Ellison’s victory. Corey Saylor, director of the Council on Islamic Relations, said in a November 8 statement, “The election of an American Muslim candidate to national office and the rejection of those who promoted societal division and mistrust send a clear message that the United States is a nation that embraces people of all faiths.”