I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to watch the PBS series Ã¢â‚¬Å“America at a CrossroadsÃ¢â‚¬Â or read the recent Pew Research Center survey on American Muslims, to know that the Muslim community is under intense scrutiny.
The day I won the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) endorsement for the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota, it was the first question out of the shoot.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ArenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t you a Muslim?Ã¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“Will you be the first one in Congress if you win?Ã¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“Will you swear your oath on the Qur’an?Ã¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do you oppose terrorism?Ã¢â‚¬Â
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve heard them all. But although IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been asked a few intrusive, repetitive, and even silly questions about my faith, life has been good.
First, a fairly small number of conversations revolve around religion. Whole days Ã¢â‚¬â€œ even weeks Ã¢â‚¬â€œ have gone by without me being asked to speak on behalf of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. But more importantly, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been able to pursue my work on behalf of my constituents. I have been effective on issues such as peace, ending the war in Iraq, credit justice, and environmental sustainability. My colleagues have been tolerant and inclusive. I have not had a single unpleasant face-to-face encounter with a member of congress over religion. Individual leaders in the Bush Administration have been open and inclusive. I accompanied Speaker Pelosi on her trip to the Middle East, and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll never forget the warm reception she received from the women who poured out of the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus just to shake her hand or take a picture.
Of course, there have been a few bumps.
For example, officers in a training class reported that a Minneapolis police lieutenant made comments that implied that I was a terrorist. The comments were rebuked by the Mayor and Police Chief, and the incident is currently under investigation. Commentator Glenn Beck asked me to Ã¢â‚¬Å“proveÃ¢â‚¬Â him that I was not working with Ã¢â‚¬Å“enemiesÃ¢â‚¬Â. Another conservative commentator opined that I should be barred from serving in Congress if I swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution on the QurÃ¢â‚¬â„¢an.
Of course, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more, but those incidents prove my main point: there is much reason for hope. I did win the election. I am making progress on a broad swath of progressive issues. I continue to be inspired by the courage of people standing up for peace, for shared-prosperity, and health care reform.
While some Muslim friends and acquaintances have recounted shabby treatment in post 9/11 America, in the next breath they have told me about how they are opening up businesses, sending kids to college, or prospering in some other way. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s common for some bright young Muslim person to tell me about their own political ambitions. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You might have been first, but IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m gonna be in Congress too.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Some have pledged to get more politically engaged or to support candidates who have the backbone to speak up for civil and human rights for all. But every prescription I have heard has been solidly within the heartland of American civil redress and our democratic political process.
This should not be surprising, given that 71 percent of Muslim Americans report that they believe that you can make it in America if you work hard, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Only 64 percent of Americans on average reported the same level of confidence in American economic and social mobility. For Muslim Americans, the United States is the land of opportunity.
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to diminish those occasions, however, where Muslim Americans have been persecuted or mistreated. These cases exist. Just ask James Yee, former United States Army chaplain and captain, who was threatened with the death penalty, kept in solitary confinement for seventy-six days, and forced to undergo sensory deprivation because he voiced concerns about the treatment about Guantanamo detainees. All charges were later dropped and he was cleared to resume duties. Instead, he accepted an honorable discharge. Today he lectures widely about the importance of upholding our constitutional heritage even in the face of a terrorist threat. Or ask Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer, who received a rare public apology from the FBI, when it admitted that his fingerprints were mistakenly linked to one found near the scene of a terrorist bombing in Spain. The blunder led to his imprisonment for two weeks, and eventually a settlement of $2 million. There are other cases as well.
Though rare, these cases are not unimportant. They are widely known incidents, and could overshadow the more typical story of participation and prosperity. As the injury is widely known, the remedies and apologies must be also widely known. But the more important lesson is that tragedies like 9/11 can cause us to react out of fear and rage against our neighbors and fellow loyal Americans.
American Muslims are an asset to the country, not a threat. Unfair suspicion and profiling does not serve the national interest or honor our hard earned reputation as the beacon for civil and human rights around the world.
I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t speak for every Muslim, but I remain confident and hopeful about the prospects for AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Muslims because, in the end, America is about religious tolerance, inclusion, and fairness.
Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress when he won the open seat for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in 2006.