Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., becomes emotional as he testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Keith Ellison: Being a Muslim in Congress Has Gotten Better

Ellison called Muslims in America the "scapegoat du jour." 

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., becomes emotional as he testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.

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Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was the first Muslim elected to Congress and it's not always been an easy ride. Monday, on book tour duty for his new tome, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” he spoke at the Center for American Progress about being a member of a religion that's often treated as the "scapegoat du jour." 

For instance, even before he won election, Ellison became the ire of the far-right when he said, on a late night Somali-language program in his district, that he would be sworn in on the Quran.

"It set off a firestorm,” Ellison recalled.


Ellison won his race and found out early on that he had allies in his own party on Capitol Hill. On swearing-in day, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Ellison to give the prayer before the freshmen class.

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“I didn’t know her from a can of paint, but I knew all that I needed to know about her from that moment on,” Ellison said.

Several more of Ellison’s Democratic colleagues bonded with him over their own swearing-in tomes.

“Later in the day of the swearing in, a little lady, about 5-foot-2, curly blonde hair – Debbie Wasserman Schultz – you all know her,’” Ellison said. “[She said], ‘Welcome to Congress and by the way, I want you to know when I swore in, I swore in with a copy of the Tanakh, which is Jewish scripture.”


Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., also approached Ellison to tell the Minnesota Democrat he had used a Bible written in the Gullah dialect.


Another memorable moment came when Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called a Muslim “radicalization” hearing in March 2011 before the House Homeland Security Committee. Ellison tried to dissuade King from holding the hearing, but when that didn’t work Ellison decided to testify instead. He made a piece of his testimony about Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old American Muslim, who perished on 9/11 trying to save his fellow citizens.

“I started talking about this boy and his heroism and my throat started to get thick, my tongue started to thicken up, I could feel warm tears start rolling down my face,” Ellison said. (Basically, he pulled a House Speaker John Boehner, who has a penchant for crying.)

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The testimony, Ellison thought, had changed that day’s storyline.

“I’m imagining Stephen King – Stephen King? Peter King – it was a horror story right?” he quipped. “Having a certain idea, a certain story, a certain headline in mind – chairman stands up to terrorism – but instead the story was about this heroic young man who gave it all up to save his fellow Americans.”


While Ellison butts heads with King and his “colleague and next door neighbor [Rep.] Michele Bachmann,” over comments she made about Huma Abedin – the latter example gives Ellison hope. In August 2012, Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, said Abedin, who’s Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide and the wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“You notice that I objected, but Sen. [John] McCain objected, John Boehner objected, conservatives from many fronts began to say, ‘wait a minute, this is a problem, this shouldn’t be going on,’” he said. “Up until that point it kind of looked like there was some faction of the Republican conservative cause that was going to try and make Muslim-hating kind of a plank.”


Ellison added that Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, also spoke up and began to look like allies.

“Now, I’m still going to disagree with them on taxation and spending and all that,” he said. “But they were good on this issue.”