Q&A: First Muslim Rep. in Congress

January 4, 2007

Author: Michael Isikoff

Source: Newsweek


Jan. 4, 2007 - Keith Ellison, 43, a Democrat from Minneapolis, was sworn in today as the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress. In this interview with NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff, Ellison talked about his decision to use a Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson for the ceremony, the recent controversy generated by Republican congressman Virgil Goode’s letter suggesting that Muslims should not be elected to Congress and how Ellison plans to practice his faith - including making a pilgrimage to Mecca - while serving in the House.

NEWSWEEK: Your swearing in is historic in some senses. How did you come up with the idea of being sworn in with a Qur'an owned by Thomas Jefferson?

Keith Ellison: An individual wrote a letter to the office ... It was like, "Wow, isn't that interesting? Here's a book that was owned by Thomas Jefferson, a towering figure of American democracy" ... Clearly [Jefferson] thought it contained information that he wanted to know about ... It just demonstrates that at the very earliest moments of this country, religious tolerance was a principle that one of the Founding Fathers was relying on.

Some might say it's a pretty effective rebuke to the comments of Virgil Goode from Virginia. What was your personal reaction to Goode's comments?

If you look at exactly what he said, he wrote in [his letter to constituents] that if we don't restrict immigration policy, there will be more Muslims here demanding to use the Qur'an, and that will swamp our resources. There has always been this strain in our society where people [wanted] to carve people out of the body politic. That might be immigrants, that might be GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community members, it could be Muslims. In 1941, it was the Japanese. The fundamental argument is fear ... and I reject that as a political philosophy.