Islam with a Human Face

Muslim Politicians in the U.S.

As I've said before, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire - rhetorically. But that can never be the only tactic. To see change you have to be the change, so positive interactions and promoting understanding are always vital. My contribution to this ideal will be highlighting a few current U.S. politicians who happen to be Muslims.

Keith EllisonI have to start with Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). Sure, he's the first Muslim U.S. Congressman and represents God/Allah/YHWH/FSM's Country. But he is also a strong progressive who frequently speaks up on the right side (by coincidence, mine) of controversial issues. So he is uniquely important to this debate and to the larger goal of introducing Muslims to those who are afraid of creeping sharia.

Rep. Ellison has not disappointed on the Muslim community center issue. On Larry King he said:
[C]onstitutional rights must always take precedence over people's sensitivities.
...
[O]ur constitutional rights are our best protection, because we send the signal that America's about - [it] is about tolerance and about religious inclusion. If we send an opposite message, basically, we allow the Anwar al-Awlakis and the Osama bin Ladens to say, see, America's at war with Islam. And that's a message that I'm absolutely against ever being sent out. I want America to stand firm on the idea of liberty and religious tolerance, as we always have. 1
The only other Muslim member of Congress is Representative André Carson (D-IN). I don't know as much about his background, but he had some good points in this Swampland (Time) interview (that also featured Rep. Ellison):Andre Carson
People certainly have a right to build as they please on private property. But that is kind of like saying that you have a quota for a certain group of people. It deals with tolerance and not necessarily acceptance. ... [T]he Republicans, as much as they hail the constitution, they seem to have a selective memory in terms of what the founding fathers intended. When it comes to gun rights they want to talk about the constitution and how the constitution is impeccable but when it comes to religious freedom they seem to have a selective memory.
The only other source I found with Rep. Carson's comments, a local TV news story, had another silly opponent quote (I just can't resist):
Several members at American Legion Post 497 on Indianapolis' west side said they think the plan is insensitive because the terrorists who struck the buildings in 2001 were Islamic extremists. "They have a right to build a mosque, however, [I] think it's an insult to build it so close to the ground zero by the religious group that all of the terrorists who committed 9-11 belonged to," said Ron Steele. "It's just like a bar. There's a board that says they can't build a bar within so many feet of a church. Why should they be able to build a mosque so close to ground zero when Iran was responsible for it, or Iraq?" said Steve Schachte.
But back to the positive. Yusuf SalaamMy research - googling "Muslim American politician" - provided what seems like a pretty thorough 2008 list, including 9 state legislators and 10 local officials. I found out more about Yusuf Salaam, a state Representative in Alabama since 2002, although he lost the primary this past June to an associate pastor and church administrator.
It would be hard to find anyone so out of the ordinary and unlikely to be accepted in middle Alabama. Yet, here's a Muslim convert of 30 years who is Selma and Dallas County's representative to the state house in Montgomery. The county is 47 percent white and 99 percent Christian - and many of them, black and white, are deep-water, conservative Baptists. With demographics like that, it would seem a Muslim vying for public office wouldn't have a prayer - especially with central Alabama's record of resistance to change.

However, it appears that Salaam has hit upon a successful strategy: He speaks the politics of pragmatism and reconciliation, and a lot of people - enough to reelect him - love that. "You have to be wise when you get power," he says over breakfast at the Downtowner Restaurant, a few blocks from the Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody attack on black voting rights marchers in 1965. "I learned I had to find a way to transition from protest politics to electoral politics. You see, it's one thing to dream about power, it's quite another to actually govern, to deliver to the people. And the test of faith, in Selma, comes with being fair to all races."
Here are three politicians who happen to be "them" to many Americans. Those fearful people need to get to know "them" better.

1 I found the quote through a City Pages blog that rearranged his comments, but it has a link to the CNN transcript. It also features Rep. Ellison's interview on Democracy Now.

Religious adherents as percentage of the population compared to members of Congress; two UU links, one to Rep. Ellison and another to Park51; and an update:

Religion% Population% Congress
Protestant51.3%54.7%
Catholic23.9%30.1%
Jewish1.7%8.4%
Mormon1.7%2.6%
Unitarian *0.3%0.6%
Buddhist0.7%0.4%
Muslim0.6%0.4%
Unaffiliated16.1%0.0%

Source. * One Unitarian, Representative Pete Stark (D-CA), has stated that he is an atheist. One person is 0.2% of the Congress. It is very hard to estimate the number of atheists in America, but they probably make up most at least half of the Unaffiliated.

Rep. Ellison spoke at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Minneapolis in June. After relating the story of the loaves and fishes feeding the multitude and riffing on what "really" happened, he said:
I don’t know. But the scripture says that after the meal, there was not just enough. There was more than enough, and they had to pick up what was left over. And you know, today, there’s enough. There’s enough for you and for me. There’s enough for the straight and the gay. There’s enough for the people who are born in America and the new immigrants. There’s enough for the blacks. There’s enough for the whites. There’s enough for the Latinos. There’s enough for the Asians. There’s enough for the Muslims, the Christians and Jews, the Buddhists, the Hindus.

There is enough, everybody! There’s enough for you. There’s enough for me. We don’t have to throw anybody under the bus. We don’t have to chase anybody out the door. We don’t have to say who doesn’t belong and who’s not included. There is enough!
...
And there is enough if you and I will commit ourselves and have a strength of spirit - not tough, not bad - but a strength of spirit based on our belief that love is the answer and that people who don’t quite see that, people who are operating on the basis of fear who think that it’s important to throw people away and throw people out and divide us, if you will be strong and brave enough to stand up against that philosophy, not against those people, but against the philosophy, because people can change, right? Then we will be able to really say there is enough - but it’s going to take you, and it’s going to take me.
Interdependent Web is a blog about UU blogs and is on my blogroll. A recent post features several takes on Park51.

UPDATE: I watched a BookTV.org show with Akbar Ahmed talking about his latest book, Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam. Good program with an overview and specific insights. The book is a field study of Muslims in America drawing on hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews. (btw, it's Moo-slims, not Muz-slims) So it's one where watching the show isn't enough, I'd like to read it as well. Akbar was on the Daily Show in early August and here is his academic biography. (August 31, 2010)

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