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Ellison gets star treatment at Dems’ first-ever Muslim caucus

By Doug GrowTuesday, Aug. 26, 2008
DENVER — Minnesota’s Rep. Keith Ellison wins plaudits — and inspires caucus members — as nation’s first Muslim member of Congress.

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison

DENVER — Muslim delegates to the Democratic National Convention have warm feelings toward Minnesota.

“We really think of it as a progressive place,” said Rashid Burney, a New Jersey delegate, who never has been to Minnesota. “We see it as a place where people don’t judge each other by the color of their skin or by their religion but the quality of their ideas.”

Burney was standing in line, waiting to have his picture taken with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the 5th District congressman from Minneapolis who two years ago became the first Muslim elected to the Congress.

In the process of winning, Ellison became a household name to Muslims across the nation, and for many, Minnesota became an almost-utopian place where intolerance does not exist.

Ellison’s victory just keeps rippling in all sorts of places.

Muslim delegates join community leaders
It helped set the stage, for example, for the first-ever gathering of a Muslim caucus at the Democratic convention Monday. The group of about 40 delegates — and at least as many other influential Muslim leaders — gathered at a downtown hotel to celebrate political possibilities.

Ellison was the star attraction and the featured speaker. He was greeted with huge applause and hugs and pats on the back. He is seen as the pioneer of the faith’s integration into the American political process.

 Of course, Ellison now is only half of the Muslim population in Congress. In a special election in Indiana in March, Andre Carson won a House seat. But Ellison set the table, which on Monday was filled with standard banquet food and high hopes.

There was a feeling of hope and generosity in the air. So generous was the Muslim caucus that the handful of reporters present were invited to partake of the meal. Usually, reporters sit in the back row of such events, taking notes while watching others eat.

The master of ceremonies saw the reporters in the back and said, “We Muslims are generous people. Media, don’t be shy. Enjoy the food.”

This is called good public relations.

By forming a separate caucus, the Muslims hope to go to work inspiring other young Muslims to follow Ellison’s lead. 

“The Muslim community has been disenfranchised since 9-11,” said Khurrum Wahid, a Florida trial lawyer and an organizer of the first-ever caucus. “We have young people who are engineers and doctors and lawyers. But they have not gotten involved in politics. It is important to make that step if we are to totally integrate into the American system. We need to integrate, but we don’t need to lose our identity in the process.”

Both Wahid and Ellison were excited by the formation of an official caucus.

These events don’t get TV time at national political conventions. The cameras are trained on the podiums or celebrities or talking heads.

But it is at these caucuses where movements are born and either become energized or fizzle away.

“I never thought I’d see this,” Wahid said to Ellison as they looked around a room filled with more than 150 people.

“A great thing,” said Ellison, clearly moved.

“A first step,” said Wahid.

Ellison nodded in agreement.

Wahid knew him long before Ellison ever decided to run for Congress.

“He asked me if I thought he should run,” Wahid said. “I told him, ‘If you do run, you’re going to be under a microscope like never before.’ He told me, ‘Bring it on.’ I knew then he was the right man. Now, we need more to follow him.”

State Sen. Mee Moua touts political involvement, too
Ellison wasn’t the only Minnesotan in the room.  DFL state Sen. Mee Moua of St. Paul also was on hand.

Moua is an animist, not Muslim. But people of all religions were invited to participate in the event. Besides, Moua felt a special closeness with the formation of this caucus. When she was elected to the state Senate in 2002, she became the first Hmong-American in the nation to hold a legislative seat.

Like the Muslims, she dreams of seeing more Hmong involved in politics.

“Look around this room,” she said. “We represent the face of America. This event (the formation of the caucus) is historic and it’s wonderful, and it comes at a convention that is historic, too.”

Both Ellison and Moua urged the Muslims to work hard in support of Barack Obama when they return to their homes.

But it is not certain that they will.

Some Muslims believe that Obama has purposely stayed clear of  Muslims as he tries to debunk the unending whisper campaign that he’s a Muslim, not Christian. Problems for Obama were magnified in June, when two Muslim women from Detroit were told by Obama campaign workers that they could NOT sit behind Obama — and in line of TV cameras — because they were wearing traditional hijabs.

Obama apologized profusely for that, but concerns have lingered.

On Monday, Joshua Dubois, the national director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign, spoke to the caucus.

“The perception that we’re not working with Muslims is not true,” said DuBois. “We’ve had some bumps in the road, but you will have a seat at the table,” Dubois said.

He got polite applause.

It was clear that Keith Ellison, from the land of milk, honey and tolerance, has more credibility with this group than the Obama campaign.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.