First Muslim in U.S. Congress Speaks on Faith and Democracy

February 5, 2007

Author: Lea Terhune


Washington - Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison is surprised that his Muslim faith became an issue during his successful campaign for a congressional seat.

“I never bring it up,” he told USINFO, although he discusses it when asked. His first impulse was to downplay religion in favor of discussing the issues, which are his priority. Now he freely discusses Islam, “because it may have the effect of building understanding. I hope it does.”

Ellison, a Democrat and the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, says he was elected for his values. “I have to continue to elevate the common good, the public interest, education, health, peace. These are the things that they want me to work on,” he said. By electing him, he said, his constituents meant, “We don’t really care what your religion is. This is what we are into, if you can promote and execute and advocate these things, you can represent us.” (See related article.)

His values derive from his Christian upbringing and Islam, which he has practiced for nearly 25 years. “The values that underlie Islam are not unique to Islam. They are shared by all faith traditions. Belief in charity, in giving to others in need and facing adversity, the belief in equality and justice -- there is no religion, including Islam, that has a monopoly on these ideas,” he said.

Ellison said true Islamic values harmonize with the democratic process. “These are universal ideas. In fact, they’re not just compatible with democracy; they drive us toward a society in which there is consultation, in which there is input and approval from the populace.” He asks, “How can you have a just society where one person or only a limited set of people make the laws for their benefit and yet other people who had no role in making the law have to abide by it? That’s fundamentally unjust.”