Ellison is a Model for Muslims
By Dr. Ghulam M. Haniff
St. Cloud, MN
Last spring King Abdullah
II of Jordan concluded his speech to the joint session
of the US Congress with the familiar salutation,
“Assalamu-alaikum!” Immediately, in
response a booming voice rang out from the center
of the chamber with a loud “Walaikum-Assalam.”
Everyone present was stunned.
For a long moment there was a hushed silence. No
doubt, some wondered whether this was an exchange
of some secret message right in their midst. By
then many heads had turned around and recognized
the new face. It was none other than the first-term
Congressman Keith Ellison, (D-MN), the newly elected
representative from the fifth district of Minnesota.
In a press interview afterwards Ellison mentioned
that he responded instinctively, without mulling
it over in his head. His Muslim background had prepared
him to return the greeting of peace with a proper
This was the first time in the history of the Congress
that such an exchange had taken place right on the
floor of that august legislative body. Of course,
no Muslim had ever been elected to the Congress
until the last mid-term elections.
Congressman Ellison’s presence in Washington
has provided a lot of mileage to the Muslim community.
He has become well known to the Muslims around the
world. Just about every Muslim leader, politician
and the local notable want to meet him personally.
It is not unusual for Muslim leaders visiting Washington
to seek him out and even invite him to their countries.
When he was elected he became an immediate target
of the mass media. During the first few months he
was subjected to considerable hostility and was
taken to task for being a Muslim. It was incredible
for many to believe that a Muslim could be elected
to the US Congress given the political climate that
prevailed in the country.
He has of course handled all the negative reactions
remarkably well. It is not unusual for Congressmen
to remain in Washington without ever becoming known.
That has not been the case with Ellison. In fact
he received attention even before he was elected
to his position. Unlike most others he continues
to receive worldwide attention with request for
interviews and guest appearances. Thanks to Al-Jazeera
Congressman Ellison has come to be seen throughout
the Middle East as a champion for human rights,
pluralism and democracy.
Just having one Congressman has made a tremendous
difference for the Muslims of America. It took only
one individual with an Islamic greeting to bring
the Congress to rapt attention, indeed, to a deafening
silence. At that pivotal moment one could have heard
a pin drop in the cavernous chamber.
If one Congressman can make such an impact within
a matter of months then several would be immensely
beneficial to the community. Muslims need to get
busy, to get involved in the political process and
to work for the election of others to elective bodies
either at the national, state or local levels.
The task is urgent and has to be undertaken by Muslims
both individually and collectively. The community
has to be mobilized. Before his election to the
Congress Ellison served in the Minnesota House of
Representatives for two terms. Prior to that he
was active in various civic, community and volunteer
organizations. That is how he acquired the skills
for the elective positions that he attained.
Muslims have to become activists in civic and community
affairs. Some are already involved in interfaith
dialogue. That is a step in the right direction.
The larger society awaits their contributions long
When Congressman Ellison was disparaged, both on
the CNN by Glenn Beck and in the Congress by Representative
Virgil Goode (R-VA), he did not back away. He responded
to hate with love. He welcomed the Qur’an
controversy and obtained the copy kept by Thomas
Jefferson for his swearing-in ceremony. That was
an eye opener to many of his colleagues. Thus, he
was able to defuse that issue in a positive way.
At the moment there is a lot of interest in diversity
training. Muslims ought to get involved in such
efforts. They are natural for projects of this type.
Recently, Muslims in Oklahoma participated in one
such endeavor and gave out copies of the Qur’an
to the state legislators. In my own area, one Muslim
activist, Ikram ul Huq, was given recognition by
the city of Bloomington, MN, for his volunteer services
to interfaith dialogue.
Sitting around complaining about discrimination,
hate and Islamophobia is not going to produce any
results. Action needs to be taken. Congressman Keith
Ellison and his small group of Muslim supporters
have shown the way. You too can join their efforts
to improve the condition of the Muslims in America,
and to work for the betterment of the nation.