A Publics Figure

July 16, 2009

Author: David Montgomery

Source: The Washington Post


Keith Ellison is what he is -- the first Muslim elected to Congress, the first African American to represent Minnesota -- while trying not to be too much of what he is. But not too little, either.

Quietly devout, he unrolls his prayer rug in the privacy of his office in the Longworth House Office Building, facing the corner beyond which lies Mecca -- but that is still too Muslim for some.

Antiwar, he once voted for an Iraq war-funding bill because it had a timetable for withdrawal -- but that was not dovish enough for some protesters who subsequently held a sit-in at his Minneapolis office.

More than two years after he came to Washington, the idea of Keith Ellison, the symbol of Keith Ellison, remains potently useful to various agendas. President Obama seized on it last month, during his address from Cairo University to the world Muslim community. In the president's list of examples of how "Islam has always been a part of America's story," he alluded to Ellison, though not by name. Ellison's name may be the least important part of his identity. Obama said: "When the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson -- kept in his personal library."

Without trying too hard, just by being who he is, Ellison has multiple publics. To Arabs overseas, he is evidence that Americans can embrace Islam. To Muslim Americans, he is a role model for political engagement.