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The importance of Keith Ellison, a patriotic American who’s also a Muslim

Many terror experts will tell you that having mainstream political leaders like Rep. Keith Ellison, and others at the local level, is our best bulwark against extremist violence.

Progressives loved seeing Rep. Keith Ellison smack down his GOP congressional colleague Peter King on “Meet the Press” Sunday, insisting that profiling Muslims in the wake of the Boston bombing is not only wrong but “ineffective law enforcement.”

As Ellison warned: “Once you start saying, we’re going to dragnet or surveil a community, what you do is you ignore dangerous threats that are not in that community, and you go after people who don’t have anything to do with it.”

Of course right-wing bloggers hailed King as the winner in the debate – he wasn’t – and one sad sack even called Ellison “the jihadi Democrat.”

The fact is, we need more Keith Ellisons in Congress. Not just because he’s a great progressive voice, supporting the president but challenging him strongly on his questionable austerity politics, but also because he’s a patriotic American who’s also a Muslim. He’s crucial right now.

On “Meet the Press” David Gregory tried to pigeonhole Ellison a little: “You’re a Muslim — this concerns you on civil libertarian grounds and other areas.”

Ellison shot back: “I’m an American,” Ellison replied. “And I’m concerned about national safety — public safety — just like everyone is.”

Still, former IRA supporter Peter King continues with his jihad against American Muslims, which apparently began when some Muslims in his district made some questionable remarks after 9/11, suggesting there had to be another explanation for the World Trade Center attacks because the backlash would only hurt Muslims. They didn’t scream, “Death to America,” they just evinced skepticism that may have simply been born of alarm at what was coming for their community – and genuine disbelief that al-Qaida could pull off such a spectacular attack.

King fictionalized his clash with local Long Island Muslims in a novel, “Veil of Tears,” which features a wave of attacks on buildings and train tunnels killing more than 100 people, sponsored by terrorists with links to a North Shore Long Island Islamic center. King still acts as though his novel is real.

“I guess you can say that the book I wrote, some of the things I worried about then, are happening now,” he told New York magazine in 2011. King’s fusion of fact and fiction makes him a little scary.

In fact, many terror experts will tell you that having mainstream political leaders like Ellison, and others at the local level, is our best bulwark against extremist violence. In Canada, right after the Boston bombing, authorities stopped a man planning to derail a Toronto train thanks to a tip from a local imam.

“In our community we may look a little different, but in our hearts we love Canada,” a local leader told the Toronto Sun. “It’s our country. It’s our tribe. We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion.”

One of the least covered angles I’ve seen in post-Boston coverage came from the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, who suggested Tamarlan Tsarnaev might have been detected and stopped earlier – not by the FBI or CIA, but by better relations between American political leaders and law-enforcement officials and local Muslim communities.

Hirsh reported that Muslim community leaders in the U.S. complain the Obama administration hasn’t followed through on promises to work closely with local Islamic groups to share information and allay suspicion on both sides. An August 2011 White House report, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” inspired little action. American Muslim leaders told Hirsh “such efforts have been meager at best, amounting to a shallow focus on counterterrorism and little more than the functional sharing of cell-phone contacts between local Muslim leaders and police.”

Some contrast U.S. efforts with the U.K.’s “Prevent” program, established after the 2005 terror attacks to improve relationships and information sharing with Muslim communities. It involves social, health and employment agencies as well as (more controversially) M15 and Scotland Yard.

In the U.S. most efforts at “Muslim outreach” involve law-enforcement agencies alone. Peter King’s good friend, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, came under attack last year after the Associated Press ran a series of stories about his aggressive, multibillion-dollar surveillance of local Muslim groups. He spied on Muslim students at 16 local college campuses, infiltrated a rafting trip and created a database of Muslim-owned business.

In at least one case when Kelly claimed his efforts stopped a terror attack, even the FBI worried NYPD informants had entrapped the suspect. (Given that the FBI has been charged with entrapping Muslim plotters, that suggests a big problem.)

But when Kelly came in for criticism, Peter King came to his pal’s rescue, slamming “left-wing rumor-mongers” for vilifying his friend. They’ve formed a tag team, with King using Kelly’s information about allegedly recalcitrant Muslims who don’t cooperate with police to insist the only answer is tight surveillance, not community outreach. Of course King never names any names; he can’t bust his law enforcement sources.

Instead of demonizing and marginalizing American Muslims (and Muslim immigrants) a smart counterterror program would work to understand local communities and cooperate with them to help them combat alienation, extremism and violence, especially among the young – and hopefully notify law enforcement when that fails. Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. — and on the planet. It’s idiocy to work to make enemies of them.

We need to make sure they feel every bit as American as Peter King’s Irish-Catholic relatives, and mine, whose ancestors were likewise once vilified as belonging to a foreign religion that made them incapable of being loyal Americans. King has pointed to Irish-American gangs and insisted that law enforcement targeted the Irish; Keith Ellison shot back, “The FBI did not go after all … Irish people. No one ever said let’s surveil a whole ethnic community,” Ellison said. “They went after people who were criminals and who were exhibiting criminal behavior.”

Keith Ellison knows Irish-American history better than Peter King does. I’ll admit that I’m always thrilled to see Ellison on television because he’s such a smart, tough but reasonable and charming progressive leader. He speaks for me — and yes, he’s a Muslim. Leaders like Ellison are far more crucial to combating Islamic extremism and keeping us safe than Peter King, and we need more of them.

Joan Walsh is Salon’s editor at large and the author of “What’s the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/30/2013 - 01:20 pm.

    Operation Rhino

    This MPR report fails to charge the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI with profiling. Operation Rhino, an effort to disrupt the terrorist pipeline from Minneapolis to Somalia, is conducted in the Somali community rather than the community at large.

  2. Submitted by Gary Doan on 04/30/2013 - 01:29 pm.

    Keith is the leftist version of Michelle Bachman

    There is no jihad against American Muslims, it simple does not exist. Keith is evidence of that, because he is an outspoken Muslim and was elected to office, which in itself shows that his religion was not a disadvantage. Americans in general are more color blind and religiously neutral than the media seems to think or portray them as. A global jihad does exist and I think American’s basic lack of fear and openness is weakening the impact in this country. We should treat all criminal elements equally and should not ignore any group, because of political correctness.

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 04/30/2013 - 02:09 pm.

    In addition to keeping us safe from terrorists…

    Rep. Keith Ellison, along with Rep. Barbara Lee of California, submitted H.Con. Res. 36 on April 26 that climate change will cause women to become prostitutes. Thank you, Rep. Ellison! I would never have thought of it.

  4. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 04/30/2013 - 02:46 pm.

    Reform in the Muslim Community

    Joan Walsh’s article is a bit over the top. We should not be villfying whole groups of people AND we should be aware that there is a radicalizing movement going on within very small segments of the Muslim community. The best people to take care of this is the Muslim community. I would much prefer to see Rep. Ellison spend equal time on condemning this radicalization as he does warning against group blame. I think the Police Commissioners’ operations are justified. Could they be augmented with something better like Britain’s program-you bet.

    PS The IRA lost their effectiveness because the Irish people and Americans turned their back on violence but still succeeded in getting a political settlement through non-violent means. Ellison could be a leading voice to do this.

  5. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 04/30/2013 - 05:26 pm.

    global warming = prostitution

    How does that work? What did he actually say, when and where? I have never heard anything like this and I’d like to know your sources.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/30/2013 - 07:25 pm.


    I have seen and heard K.E. act in a “rude” way. He has even interrupted people trying to ask him a question.

  7. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 04/30/2013 - 10:07 pm.

    That’s my Congressman!!!

    And I can attest that what Joan Walsh wrote, “he’s such a smart, tough but reasonable and charming progressive leader” is the truth. Keith is great. He is an African-American Muslim man who represents my values—and I’m a white Christian woman. Core human values transcend gender, religion and skin color.

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