At a recent press conference, President Obama responded to a question about growing suspicion of Islam, saying, "We don’t differentiate between us and them. It’s just us." Unfortunately, this is not the reality that many Muslims here and around the world are experiencing. Nonetheless, Obama’s remarks point to an empirical fact: Millions of Muslims call the United States their home. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is one of them.
Ellison, elected in 2006, was the first Muslim to hold congressional office (Andre Carson, a congress member from Indiana, made it two in 2008). He’s also a politician with significant progressive credentials who speaks with unusual forthrightness about the need for racial equity in policy making. ColorLines spoke this week with Ellison about the recent demonization of Muslims in America, the resulting uptick in violence and the politics of anger that have become definitive of this year’s midterm elections.
Commenting on the controversy surrounding the Park 51 Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan, NYC Mayor Bloomberg recently said, "This whole issue, I think, will go away right after the next election." Do you think that these attacks are going to go away after elections?
I do think it’ll die down but I don’t think it will go away.
Because the people who are struck by fear and who are creating a climate of fear with the thought of this Islamic center are not going away. Yes, it’s going to have a tougher time catching the public mind and it is going to have a tougher time getting any news. But you have to understand that there are some people who make their living trying to say, "The Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming." It’s important to bear in mind that these folks are not going to stop and pack it in just because the elections are over. … They are just going to find something else to make a big deal about.
I don’t think it’s completely separate from elections either. Certainly certain people like Rick Lazio will try to exploit the upsurge in anti-Islamic ideas to their political advantage. But I don’t think it’s rooted in the election cycle. I think it’s rooted in the idea that there are urges in society from time to time based on a multitude of factors that make some people want to scapegoat others.
In the early 1960s, you had people scapegoating Catholics, saying we can’t have Kennedy be the president because then the pope will running the country. Of course we have a long history of scapegoating Jews as well. And we have a long history of racial discrimination and scapegoating. We’ve seen conservatives and people who want to keep America for people who have traditionally benefited. We’ve seen these elements scapegoat. We remember Reagan talking about welfare queens. He scapegoated single moms who are poor and tried to say that America’s problems are because of them. And then George Bush said, "Well no, the problems are not because of them, but because of black men like Willie Horton and liberals like Dukakis, who let these guys run around." And then we went from there to, "Well the problem is with the gays, they’re the problem. They’re trying to get married and they’re causing the problem." And then it’s because of the Latinos, they’re taking our jobs.
There is always a scapegoat de jour when fearful people blame the problems of society on a distinct groups that usually does not have much political power.
A third of Americans, according to a Time magazine poll, believe that people who share your faith should not be able to serve as president. We could probably assume that this rather large subset of the populace also takes issue with you being in Congress.
There are 30 percent of Americans that think that they are not comfortable with people of color doing anything but being in servile roles. They are not comfortable with gays being out of the closet, they are not comfortable with women having jobs and being out of the kitchen. You might find 30 percent of the country that says that the only religion that should be tolerated is the Protestant Christian faith. Thirty percent sounds like a lot, but it’s really not that much. You can’t win an election with 30 percent of the vote. Yes, some people are intolerant of people who are not exactly like them. If you are not are not white, straight, Christian then you are just not okay.
But that 30 percent does help win elections. Several Tea Party members won their primaries this past weekend and it seems to me that they aim to topple incumbents with populist politics animated by a fear of Muslims, immigrants, people of color, LGBT people. Is there a connection between the surge in hateful rhetoric against Muslims that we’ve seen in the past months and the success of these candidates?
Rightwing populism has a long history in the United States and it has not always been good. There was a man named "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman who was responsible for whipping up popular sentiment against blacks and ushered in Jim Crow segregation. He did not do it as some fancy businessman. He did it from the bottom up, by saying, "They’re taking our jobs." So populism is not always a good thing. Particularly when you want to whip up one group against another group. The Tea Party movement needs to be more deliberate about what they are about. I’ll say though that as long as their basic fuel is anger, which it clearly is, it runs the risk of being the point of the spear of a bigoted anti-Islamic, anti-black, anti-gay, anti-everybody who is not like them type movement. I am not going to sit up and broad brush the Tea Party, because I am hoping the Tea Party does some self-improvement. But it does have a certain degree of danger because it is fueled essentially by anger and the people are not thinking through what is really to blame.
So why right now are Muslims being targeted? What is particular about this moment that Muslims are made the targets of scapegoating and fear?
One factor is that in Western thinking the Orient and people from the Orient are somehow foreign or different. Long before 9/11 occurred, you had a whole set of films where the villain is some Arab Muslim guy. Whether it’s "True Lies" or it’s "Back to the Future," whether it’s Libyans who are blowing up something, whatever it is, it is deeply rooted stuff over the long term. What is Islam but the religion of the Orient? So there’s that.
Then you have other things like 9/11 that make these things more pointed. Of course 9/11 was not the last thing. Like when Faizal Shahzad tried to blow up a bomb in Times Square or when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit or Nadal Hassan did what he did in Fort Hood. These things are incredibly damaging to the way that Americans feel about their Muslim and Middle Eastern neighbors.
The Muslim world is incredibly diverse. You have people who are Bosnian Muslims who are white as the moon and Liberian Muslims that are as black as the night. You have white Americans whose families have been here for generations and they have converted to Islam. One example is Hamza Yusuf who is a noted and brilliant scholar. So there is a broad diversity of Muslims. That’s just the reality. You know, Islam is not all foreign. When I swore in on the Quran, I swore in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran….
In Park51 you have people who want to bring us back but there are more people who want to bring us forward. You can never suppress people who have reactionary, fearful ideas who want to divide people. But the people who stand up and do the right thing will prevail if they stick to it. It’s like MLK said in the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." But in the case of Park51, the good people have spoken up.
Should Obama and other leaders have moved faster to speak up?
I think the president has done a good job. He has spoken out clearly and properly on this issue of the mosque and the issue in Gainesville Florida. I am proud of the president. That is one of the good sides of the story. When you have a leader standing up and saying we are not going to divide Americans based on religion. I don’t have any complaints about what Obama, Gates, Petraeus or Nadler has said.
They could have ducked and covered but instead they have contributed to the marginalization of people who make their living on this stuff, like Pam Geller and Robert Spencer. …
These people deserve some attention. What they really want is to throw rocks and bow their heads. You take a guy like Daniel Pipes. He said I was worse than Osama Bin Laden. He wrote in the Jerusalem Post that people like me, Tariq Ramadan and others were Islamism 2.0 and that Osama Bin Laden was Islamism 1.0 and that we are worse. Anyone who says things like this deserves some real scrutiny. These guys run around putting this hate out. You ask, What’s going on? It’s that we have this anti-Islamic industry.
What needs to happen to push back? What are your prescriptions?
I think it is important for our country to do a few things. The first thing is that we do need to get our foreign policy right. We need to continue to get out of Iraq. We should start getting out of Afghanistan. I do not think we should be escalating in Afghanistan. We should invest in helping to rebuild Afghanistan not be escalating a military conflict there. I credit the Obama administration with trying to be a positive player in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Whatever cynics say about his prospects for success, we need to welcome his efforts to try. His speech in Cairo was great and people can say much has happened since, but he can’t do everything. He set a good tone. People need to take up the mantle and continue what he started.
Second, in our local communities, we need to think about how we treat people going into airports, think about racial profiling, and move more toward behavior-based law enforcement as opposed to profile-based law enforcement. It is important to guarantee that the Muslim community–and of course I don’t speak for the Muslim community–I know you are not going to get any objection from the Muslim community for stopping crime and terrorism. You are going to get a lot of support and thank you’s. But at the same time, if you have someone who has never done anything except for try to lead a good life getting stopped in the airport time after time…this is not a positive either and we need work there.
We also need to understand that public safety is best supported through trust relationships with people who are in the position to know. If some trans-national terrorist is trying to organize Muslims to do something awful, they will probably do it in Muslim communities, so don’t we want the Muslim community to feel good about the FBI and the police department so that they’ll say, "I’m, going to call my friends in the police department"? This requires trust.
I would also say that American Muslims and American civil liberty advocates need to be part of developing policy around counter-terrorism. Because terrorism is a reality. Muslims have been involved in it; so have other people. Sadly, a diverse group has been involved in using spectacular acts of violence to obtain a political agenda. I think that if civil libertarians and Muslims and people who sometimes are concerned with these policies and how they work are part of formulating the policy, then these policies will be shaped in a way that will not cause such discomfort. We can protect our country and preserve civil liberties and have respect for everybody in this country. …
And third, average citizens need to come together. I think synagogues and churches and mosques and others houses of worship. We need to keep on strengthening the interfaith movement. It’s something we don’t need to get the government to do. Each community needs to build an interfaith counsel in which rabbis are talking to Imams are talking to church leaders–talking to faith leaders of all kinds.
A couple of years ago with my mosque, we were breaking fast at Ramadan and it happened to overlap with Yom Kippur, which is the breaking of the fast that Jews observe every year. And we did it together in the same space. We did our prayer and then the Jews did their ritual and then we had a wonderful meal. You don’t have to be a politician to do this. You don’t have to be a person in authority at all. You just say let’s just do it. You’d go a long way toward building a greater society. I urge people to come together to build some understanding.