Interview: Rep. Keith Ellison

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is currently serving his fifth term. He is a member of the House Financial Services Committee and the House Democratic Steering Committee, and he also serves as Chief Deputy Minority Whip. In 2006 Rep. Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. 

Harvard Political Review: What has your experience been as a minority in Congress? Do you feel that you had to do anything differently to get elected?

Keith Ellison: No. As a matter of fact, I’ve had the experience where we’ve been able to push forward legislation that’s important, [and] I’ve been able to speak up on issues that I care a lot about and been able to organize people. And I’ve been winning with 70 percent of the vote, and if you look at my district, you know it’s a majority Christian district, and yet we’ve still been winning with high margins, so I don’t feel like I’ve had any disadvantages for being a minority.

That doesn’t mean there’s not racism or discrimination—there’s plenty of that—but I don’t feel that I’ve been hampered by it, and the reason why is that we reach out to people on the basis of where everyone meets, and try to build common cause on that basis. Because of that, I think we’ve cut through some of the issues that normally divide people.

HPR: Along those lines, do you think it’s important to move toward a more diverse Congress?

KE: Absolutely. I think it’s really important because I think that you need all perspectives to reflect the needs of the country. If you only give people one perspective, inputting their views into the congressional process, you’re going to have a skewed outcome. Can’t be all men, can’t be all white, can’t be all black, can’t be all straight. [It has] got to be a wide range of people. Can’t be all people of one faith group. We need diversity so we can have the views of all Americans reflected in congressional outcomes.

HPR: What advice would you give to young people interested in politics who are part of groups that are underrepresented in government?

KE: I would say that you have to engage. Young people are doing amazing things across this country right now. There’s this whole Fight for $15, which our young workers are doing to increase wages at fast food companies. There are movements being led by young people.

One thing that I’d just remind young people of is that when John Lewis, who’s a member of Congress today, defied George Wallace and led the march from Selma to Montgomery, he was 23 years old. Martin Luther King was the old man in the bunch, and he was 35, so young people need to know that they’ve always been an important part of our society, have always been at the forefront of pushing for a more just America, and we can’t be successful without the impatience, the vigor that young people bring to the fight for social justice. We need young people to be involved, and we have to expect that young people are going to be impatient, they don’t want to wait, and they’ve got new ideas and new ways of looking at problems.

HPR: Do you feel that your faith has had any bearing on how people treat you on a day-to-day basis or in Congress?

KE: Yeah, it does. But again, I’m an optimistic guy, and I don’t let things like that hamper me. It’s just as much the case that people will come to me and ask my opinion about how to properly include the Muslim community, as it is that people will come with some hateful stuff too. When people come to me about my religion, it’s not always a thing of “we don’t want people like you here,” which happens sometimes. But mostly it’s people who would like to know more. I get a chance to help people understand the religion better.

HPR: So in that way, you’re acting more as a role model trying to show people what Islam is like?

KE: Yeah, what it’s really like. So if people are given a TV-educated idea of what Islam is, I have the opportunity to push back on that and say ISIS does not speak for the Muslim world, and in fact, you have people right here in front of you who are much more representative than homicidal maniacs.

HPR: Are there any conversations you’ve had about your faith that stand out?

KE: One time, the Library of Congress was giving books to local libraries around the country on Islam, and the Library of Congress gives books out on a lot of things, but they thought they’d share books with local libraries so people would learn more about Islam. The library of a guy named Walter Jones, who’s a member of Congress from North Carolina, got some books and resource materials, and he got up in the press and said he didn’t want any Muslim books in the library. And the people said, “Wait a minute, that’s kind of anti-Muslim.” He said, “Oh no, Keith Ellison is a friend of mine.” And I said, “You know what? We are friends, but you’re wrong about this. Why in the world wouldn’t you want more information so people can make good decisions about what they believe, based on legitimate sources, not just Fox News?” And he came around and apologized, admitting he was wrong. And that’s just one thing out of many that happened.

Image Credit: Flickr/Keith Ellison

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