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Congressman Keith Ellison speaks on intersect of faith and career

<ld the story last Friday, Congressman Keith Ellison hadn’t even thought about his faith when running for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s endorsement for Congress in 2006. Instead, he had run on a platform of promoting peace, human rights and prosperity for working families. After being surprised by a speedy party endorsement, however, Ellison recalled that at his first press conference as his party’s favored candidate the first question he fielded was not about policy but a topic that surprised him: “Aren’t you a Muslim?”

“I’ve never made my religious faith the central focus in my life,” Ellison said. “I don’t really see my faith as an identity.”

Ellison, who represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, said he struggled to come to terms with his position as the first Muslim in the United States Congress. The impact of his faith on his career were the subject of his lecture and discussion last Friday at the Severance Great Hall. The event, “The American Public’s Encounter With One Muslim and One Muslim’s Encounter With American Political Life,” was sponsored by the Carleton religion department and was the brainchild of religion instructor Shana Sippy, who is teaching a course called “Encountering Islam: Dialogue and Difference” this term.

Sippy’s course deals with interactions between Muslims and other cultural groups, and Sippy said she was interested in Ellison because he “offers a different perspective on what it means to be a Muslim in America.”
“He has a unique take on Islam that we should open our eyes to,” Sippy said.

In his speech, Ellison reflected on the controversy that erupted upon his election to Congress when he mentioned that he intended to be ceremonially sworn in on a copy of the Qur’an. At the time, social conservatives criticized this choice, with some claiming that it “would tear apart society as we know it,” Ellison said. However, Ellison recalled being supported by many more of his new colleagues, and ultimately decided to be sworn in on a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Ellison said he believes America “has something to offer the world” in its general tolerance of people of all faiths, citing the failure of two of his most vocal opponents during the swearing-in controversy to be reelected to Congress.

“Americans, in general, are tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs. These newsworthy events are the exception,” Ellison said. “We should be concerned, but we are way ahead for the battle for religious tolerance in the United States.”

Ellison spoke of his confusion at his public image as a “Muslim representative”, pointing out that while he practices his faith he is not a scholar or religious leader, and he denied the perception of offering the “Muslim perspective” on political issues.

“There are as many ways to be Muslim as there are to be human,” Ellison said.

Ellison concluded his remarks by calling for greater understanding between people of different cultures, saying that America’s relationship with foreign countries needs to change.

“I believe that it is good relationships, not superior military force, that determine peace,” Ellison said.
Ellison fielded questions after his speech, several of which dealt with American foreign policy. Responding to a query about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ellison said he meets regularly with pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-peace groups in his district. A question about lobbying led him to decry a recent Supreme Court decision removing restrictions on political contributions by corporations, but he admitted that fundraising was necessary to be effective in Congress and called money “the mother’s milk of politics.”

Before leaving, Ellison was presented with a pair of gifts from the college: a copy of The Theory of the Leisure Class, the noted economics text written by 1880 graduate Thorstein Veblen, and a Carleton frisbee.

Ellison is in his second term in the House of Representatives, and his district covers Minneapolis and eastern Hennepin County.

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