It was Dec. 9, 2015, and in the halls of Congress, lawmakers were talking about the latest controversy sparked by Donald Trump.
That day, it happened to be the Republican candidate’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating into the United States. In a hallway off the House floor, a reporter from the news site Talking Points Memo asked Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, what he thought about it.
King is known for being one of the most socially conservative immigration hardliners in Congress. He has claimed before that Muslim immigrants intend to bring sharia law into the U.S.
When asked about the Trump’s immigration ban, King alluded support for it, and referenced sharia law again.
“Sharia law is incompatible with the United States Constitution and so if they want to demonstrate that they are open to being Americanized, the first thing they should do is renounce Sharia law,” King told TPM’s Lauren Fox.
“You won’t get Keith Ellison or André Carson in this Congress to renounce Sharia law, let alone somebody that’s just come out of the Middle East that is someone who has been steeped in Islam for a lifetime.”
At that point, Ellison — the Minneapolis Democrat and the country’s first Muslim congressman — walked by, shook hands with King, and was promptly informed by Fox about what his Republican colleague had just said. “An incredibly ignorant statement,” was how he responded.
Political media buzzed over the story for a day as an example of how Trump’s escalating rhetoric on Islam was reverberating in Washington.
If you’re familiar with Ellison at all, though, the incident felt like a rerun of the same episode: the Muslim congressman coming, yet again, to the defense of himself and his religion after critical remarks from another politician — or a colleague.
But this may have a special resonance in this election season — one that Ellison and other Muslims say has elevated some of the nastiest anti-Muslim rhetoric they have ever heard.
In Ellison’s ideal world, he’d be spending his time talking about, say, a higher minimum wage rather than responding a colleague’s criticism that he hasn’t sufficiently renounced sharia law.
But in a year when each week seemed to bring a fresh controversy surrounding Islam, and you’re one of two Muslim members of Congress, you don’t have much of a choice but to engage. The 2016 election might be Ellison’s biggest stage yet — and it might present political opportunities for him and his party.
‘I didn’t run for Congress to talk about my religion all the time’
The decade Ellison has been in Congress has seen numerous flare-ups over him and his Muslim faith: when Glenn Beck asked him to prove he wasn’t working with America’s enemies, when a Republican congressman from Virginia said a stricter immigration policy would prevent more Muslims from being elected to Congress, when former Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed he had links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Today, Ellison says that his colleagues in Congress are more understanding of his faith and the Muslim community.
The national political climate, though, tells a different story. Ellison joins many others in considering the 2016 election a high water-mark of Islamophobia in the U.S.
“Anti-Muslim hate has never been worse,” Ellison told MinnPost, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has issued reports claiming a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S.
In his visits to Muslim-American communities around the country, Ellison says people are telling him the election is making them “nervous and afraid.”
He pinned that not only on Trump, but on other GOP primary candidates, too. “They saw Ben Carson say that no Muslim should be president, they saw all the other ones, including Ted Cruz, say hateful things.” (Cruz convened a Senate hearing on terrorism in June, in which a witness advanced the notion that Ellison is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Campaign trail rhetoric on Islam frequently made its way to Congress, and it was easy to tell when it did. Whenever Islam or terrorism was in the news, reporters would trail Ellison in the halls off of the House floor.
When, and how, to respond in those situations is a regular topic of discussion and debate in Ellison’s office, and has been since he got to D.C. His aides frequently field requests from members of the press, asking the congressman for comment on whatever the Islam-related controversy du jour is.
This illustrates perhaps the central challenge of being Ellison: balancing his position as one of just two Muslim congressmen with his position as a regular congressman — one with an agenda and responsibilities that exist beyond the borders of his faith. (Since 2010, Ellison has co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus.)
“Honestly, I feel pulled in two different directions,” Ellison said. “On the one hand, it’s not going to go away because I don’t talk about it, and there’s a real danger that misinformation will get out if we don’t participate.
“On the other hand, I didn’t run for Congress to talk about my religion all the time,” he added. “I ran for Congress to try to increase the minimum wage, strengthen the right to bargain collectively, to do something about climate change, to help students afford college. That’s why I ran.”
“Yet I talk about my religion on a pretty regular basis. The thing is that, I fear if I decline those interviews, Steve King is not going to decline them, so I better be in the dialogue.”
Dealing with the job of spokesman
Ellison’s been a pretty regular fixture in that dialogue, even if he says he’d rather be talking about other things.
His office is wary of doing too much press that explicitly focuses on his faith, though Ellison does grant the occasional profile, like this December 2015 article in the Washington Post, which explored how he was reacting to the GOP primary.
He told the Post, “I don’t really see myself as a spokesman for the Muslim community. I’m not a scholar of Islamic history or jurisprudence or anything. I’m just, like, a guy.”
Yet, Ellison has sometimes acted as a spokesman for the Muslim community. This year, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, he published an op-ed in the Post arguing that America can “beat Islamophobia.”
In August, after Trump picked a fight with Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim-American soldier, Ellison put his name on a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email to supporters. He wrote that, by attacking the Khans, Trump was “attacking millions of Muslims like me.”
Muslim activists who know and work with Ellison appreciate the congressman serving as a de facto spokesman for the community, even if he may not particularly want to.
Linda Sarsour, a Muslim political activist from New York who considers the congressman a mentor, said Ellison deals with a “great burden of responsibility.”
“He knows he can’t step aside, he can’t be quiet,” she said. “If he’s quiet, it means Muslims are quiet.”
Clinton sees opportunity
Increasingly, though, Muslims are not being quiet. If this election has made the community feel more besieged than ever, some people are responding by stepping up their participation in the political arena.
This is where that Ellison’s unofficial role as Muslim spokesman and his official role as a progressive politician overlap. Galvanizing a constituency — a Democratic-leaning constituency — to vote and run for office could be a valuable asset in achieving progressives’ political goals.
Clinton and her team certainly believe so, too, and they have responded to this election’s rhetoric as an opportunity. Her campaign touts one of the most comprehensive efforts ever by a presidential candidate to engage and mobilize Muslim voters.
The campaign has a dedicated Muslim outreach staffer, Florida native Farooq Mitha, who has coordinated events like voter registration drives at mosques, and phone banks where Muslim supporters make calls for Clinton.
Some Muslim advocates say this is a welcome departure from the past, when they have seldomly been regarded as a crucial constituency needed to win an election.
In June 2008, the New York Times ran a story exploring the “snub” Muslim-Americans had detected from Barack Obama as he sought his first term, amid rumor-mongering that he was Muslim, and/or not born in the U.S.
The story featured an anecdote from Ellison, an early and eager backer of Obama, who volunteered to campaign for the senator at a mosque in Iowa — only to have the campaign cancel it at the last minute.
Ellison recalled an Obama aide later saying by way of explanation, “We have a very tightly wrapped message.” To the congressman, the subtext was clear.
In the eyes of some Muslims, 2012 didn’t see much of an improvement. Sarsour said that “Yes we can, but not with the Muslims, is how people thought about Obama in 2012.”
The Muslim vote
The Muslim-American population is not as small a voting bloc as some might think: Though estimates vary, it’s generally believed there are around 4 or 5 million Muslims in the U.S., meaning they constitute somewhere between 1 to 2 percent of the country’s total population.
Before 9/11, they skewed Republican: In the 2000 election, about three-quarters of Muslim voters went for George W. Bush. After eight years of the Bush presidency, close to 90 percent of Muslims voted for Obama.
Muslims may be dwarfed in population by key voting blocs like African-Americans or Hispanics, but they do outnumber other constituencies, like Cuban-Americans, who have traditionally garnered substantial attention from presidential campaigns.
“Today we do not talk about the Muslim vote,” Ellison said at a talk at the National Press Club in Washington in May, “but we will be, and should be. There are a lot of states where the Muslim vote is a critical vote.”
That is true: Though the center of the U.S. Muslim population is the New York City area, there are large, concentrated Muslim communities in the Detroit area, in parts of Florida, Texas, and Virginia, and, of course, in Minnesota.
Theoretically, high Muslim turnout could help decide a close election in a competitive state.
Ellison says that Clinton knows “in places like Michigan, Minnesota, places like Virginia, and really all over the country, even though the Muslim community is 1 percent of the country, there are certain areas where turnout can make a big difference.”
He pointed out that the Democratic National Convention that nominated Clinton featured seven Muslim speakers, while the 2008 and 2012 conventions featured none.
Clinton is savvy when it comes to the impact that an engaged Muslim community could have, Ellison said.
“The truth is that Obama probably was as aware, and yet she has really gone out of her way to make sure Muslim voters felt a part of her campaign.”
Ellison key to Muslim outreach
To accomplish that goal, the Clinton campaign has frequently deployed Ellison to Muslim communities around the country.
According to aides, since August, Ellison has traveled to Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, and Colorado for events, such as a Muslim-American phone bank in Orlando, a meeting with Clinton supporters outside Detroit, and a town hall meeting with young Muslim voters in Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the country’s largest Muslim and Arab-American communities.
His message to Muslim Americans in these outings has been simple — and chilling in its subtle implication.
“What many of them know is that involvement ensures safety,” Ellison told MinnPost. “Involvement increases the likelihood that candidates who believe in America as an inclusive place will be in a position to make decisions.”
“The level of participation has never been higher,” he added. “The hostility has been met with a community reaction to get involved.”
Mitha, the Clinton staffer, called Ellison the campaign’s most prominent Muslim surrogate and an “important piece of what we’re doing for Muslim outreach.”
He agreed that Trump has galvanized the community. The Republican’s rhetoric, he said, “is unprecedented… My personal experience, being engaged with the community’s political and civic process, is the community is getting more engaged, more involved.”
That increased engagement takes the form of voting in federal, state, and local elections, lobbying elected officials, and even running for office.
According to Rep. André Carson, an Indiana Democrat and Congress’ other Muslim member, “this particular election has really fired up the community in a way that will yield great results down the line. The enthusiasm I’m seeing from Muslims has created a dialogue I think will serve our community well.”
Sarsour, the New York activist who has worked with Ellison, said many young Muslims have been inspired to seek elected office, bringing up the example of Abdullah Hammoud, a 25-year-old Dearborn resident who won a contested Democratic primary for Michigan’s state House of Representatives.
She credited the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom she and Ellison both supported, with galvanizing young Muslims, along with the tide of Islamophobic rhetoric. (Close to two-thirds of Dearborn voters went for Sanders in the Michigan primary.)
“I absolutely believe that Muslims across the country are engaging in politics in ways we haven’t seen maybe in the past 20, 30 years,” Sarsour said.
Ellison predicts that Trump and others who promoted what he called “hateful behavior” are “going to wish they’d never done it, because they’re awakening a group of loyal, dedicated Americans who love their country.”
What happens after 2016?
Ellison may be meeting a unique moment for Muslims in U.S. politics, and the Clinton campaign is putting the tools in place to make political hay out of it.
It’s possible that Nov. 8 sees not only a defeat of Trump, but a vindication of the Muslim-American community’s efforts to push back against him, whether through voting, organizing, or running for office.
On Nov. 9, though, Ellison will still wake up as one of two Muslim members of Congress, still only one of a handful of public figures who can speak for the community on a national level.
Though he has said he is optimistic Americans will reject Islamophobia, Ellison let on concern about what could come after Trump.
“I think it’s really important that Trump be rebuked, but I’m not under any illusions,” he said. “He may have well woken up some pretty scary trends. … They’ve been dog-whistling this stuff for years. What they imply he screams into a microphone, and it grew into a raging movement.”
“If someone a little less insulting but just as charismatic as Donald Trump runs, will that guy be winning? Who knows. He’s sort of agitated people’s fear, he didn’t start this thing, he just tapped into it. Other people might wanna do the same thing.”
Ellison attributed the tide of Islamophobia to divide-and-conquer politics, and said the country needs to do some “real healing … we need to talk to a lot of low-income white folks who feel left out of this economy and help them really see they are very important to our country.”
Some political observers have pilloried the notion that the popularity of Trump’s talk on Muslims, Hispanic immigrants, and other groups can be chalked up to the economy leaving behind some regions that are hotbeds of Trump support.
But when it comes to the issue of his faith, Ellison is optimistic — that, at the very least, it just doesn’t matter that much to most people.
“I think most Americans really don’t have a problem with what people’s religion is. That’s my experience,” he said. “On a day to day basis, when I encounter people of other faiths, Jews, Christians, Mormons, Hindus, we don’t go on and on about what religion are you.”
“People are 10 times more interested in, is the minimum wage going up? What about climate change? What about child care? It’s all this other stuff. It’s real things, not something going on in the imagination of Steve King.”