Friday, August 3, 2007

Keith Ellison, Iraqi Sheikhs, and Islam's Image

Representative Keith Ellison's term in Congress will be historically important, no matter what he does. As the first Muslim elected to that body, he represents another step in the development of the United States of America as an open, free, society: one where a person's ancestral geography or religious beliefs does not determine what position that person holds.

After a relatively quiet first six months in office, Representative Ellison promises to make history through his own efforts.

Recently, Keith Ellison traveled to Iraq. I first read about his trip in the St. Cloud Times (July 31, 2007), where "Ellison meets Iraqi sheikhs" ran across the top of four of the paper's five front-page columns.

The sheikhs, who "oversee several hundred thousand congregants," had a very good reason for speaking with the only muslim among America's congressmen. "They were very upset and concerned that al-Qaeda is misrepresenting Islam," Ellison said in the AP article. "And they were talking to me about what I can possibly do to work with them to give a clearer, more accurate picture of what Islam is all about." (Emphasis is mine.)

Essentially the same story had appeared in the previous day's USA Today, Ellison returns from trip to Iraq. Ellison, referring to the sheikhs' request, said he would help. He was already involved in "a State Department outreach effort aimed at improving the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world."

The USA Today article included quite a bit that wasn't in the St. Cloud, Minnesota paper. Again quoting Representative Ellison, and the USA Today article: "The success in Ramadi is not just because of bombs and bullets, but because the U.S. and Iraqi military and the Iraqi police are partnering with the tribal leadership and the religious leadership," he said. "So they're not trying to just bomb people into submission. What they're doing is respecting the people, giving the people some control over their own lives."

Ellison said he was particularly impressed watching Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, U.S. commander in the Anbar province, greeting people with "as-salama aleikum," meaning peace be upon you.

This is a far cry from the Ellison who said, while meeting with the group Atheists for Human Rights, "It's almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that. After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it and it put the leader of that country [Hitler] in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted. The fact is that I'm not saying [Sept. 11] was a [U.S.] plan, or anything like that because, you know, that's how they put you in the nut-ball box -- dismiss you." (Another Islamic Voice in the Debate)

There are politicians who say whatever they think the group they're with wants to say. If Representative Ellison is one of that sort, I suspect that he'll have a long career. If he doesn't have American journalists on his side, he at least seems to enjoy a certain immunity from journalistic curiosity.

News media in the States don't generally seem inclined to look closely to Mr. Ellison's background. That's according to M. Zuhdi Jasser, a contributing editor for the FSM (Family Security Matters) website: and a Muslim. I'm somewhat inclined to agree. Dr. Jasser gives details of Keith Ellison's connections and past that I'd consider to be newsworthy:
  • Addressing the North American Imams Federation Congressman-elect Ellison. Dr. Jasser says the AIF is behind the lawsuit brought by the Minnesota Imams against U.S. Airways
  • Ellison's campaign fund raisers involved Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) members. CAIR is a group identified by the Anti-Defamation League as founded by leaders of a Hamas affiliate
  • Representative Ellison insists that his connection with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam was limited to the Million Man March
Any or all of these could simply be the sort of elbow-rubbing that a good politician does.

I think it's a little odd that Mr. Ellison's connection with the colorful Louis Farrakhan, who was banned from the UK "on the grounds he expressed racist and anti-Semitic views" hasn't gotten more attention. Farrakhan, a man with colorful ideas and a talent for getting attention, combined with the first Muslim Congressman, is not intrinsically boring. In fact, it should be news. (Don't blame me for the remark about Mr. Farrakhan: I'm just quoting the BBC.)

However, for now I don't know what to think of Mr. Ellison. He may be a young man with little practical experience in public life, who needs to learn that being an American Congressional Representative is an important, high-profile position: and that he can't count on the cooperation of a selectively attentive press indefinitely.

I hope so. We don't need a reckless Representative with comparative immunity from press scrutiny right now. Representative Keith Ellison's official website seems well-organized, and should be a good place to see what he wants his image to be.

We do need people who are able to understand the many flavors of Islam that seem to exist, and to communicate that understanding to the rest of us.

I think it's going to be a long time before we discover whether Keith Ellison is one of those people.

Happily, we don't need to rely entirely on Representative Ellison and the press corps for information on his activities. So far, the Web has proven to be an excellent forum for ideas that the New York Times, broadcast networks, and other traditional information gatekeepers would just as soon be quietly ignored.

Keith Ellison posts:As the first Islamic member of the American Congress, Representative Ellison deserves some attention. There may be more K.E. posts, given his colorful past associations and current talent for getting in the news.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.