Congressman’s Imam Is Taking a Lead in Interfaith Efforts

February 10, 2007

Author: Samuel G. Freedman

Source: The New York Times

MINNEAPOLIS - On the evening after Minnesota’s Democratic primary last September, Makram El-Amin picked up his ringing cellphone to hear the raspy, exhausted voice of Keith Ellison. The men had known each other for a decade, long enough for Mr. El-Amin to become the imam of a mosque in their North Minneapolis neighborhood and Mr. Ellison to win a seat as the area’s state representative.

Now Mr. Ellison had survived a bruising campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress and was headed into a general election. It was bound to include even more scrutiny and vitriol from opponents, based on his past in the Nation of Islam and his present as a Sunni Muslim.

So Mr. Ellison was calling, as Mr. El-Amin recounted the other day, not as a politician but as a congregant, seeking pastoral counsel.

“Be the person you’ve been all along,” Mr. El-Amin recalls telling Mr. Ellison in the 20-minute conversation. “Be a public servant, not an Islamic spokesman. Keep the interest of all the people in the forefront. That’s what Muhammad himself would do.”

Two months later, Mr. Ellison won election, becoming the first Muslim member of Congress, and doing so in an overwhelmingly non-Muslim district. As for Mr. El-Amin, he was transformed into a congressman’s imam, putting an Islamic imprint on the role of spiritual adviser played by such figures as the Rev. Billy Graham for Richard M. Nixon and the Rev. Jesse Jackson for Bill Clinton.

In his own public life, Mr. El-Amin has espoused a combination of liberal positions on affordable housing and the minimum wage and social conservatism in terms of self-help. These stances reflect his personal history, which like Mr. Ellison’s includes a conversion from the Nation of Islam’s black pride and black separatism to the color-blind, egalitarian theology of a traditional Muslim. And as an African-American, born and raised in this country, completely at home in its language and culture, Mr. El-Amin feels no timidity in joining the public discourse.