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December 25, 2006

Who’s Afraid of Keith Ellison?


Ever since Keith Ellison of Minnesota was elected in November as the first Muslim Congressman in history, something about him has driven seemingly intelligent conservatives into apoplexy.


Ellison, a Democrat who will represent the entire city of Minneapolis as well as several suburbs in Congress, defeated three opponents in a contentious primary, and later Republican and independent candidates in the general election. In addition to being the first Muslim ever in Congress, Ellison will also be the first African-American from Minnesota to be sworn into the House of Representatives.


It’s that swearing in that’s drawn quite a bit of bizarre controversy. Ellison announced that in his private ceremony, he will place his hand on the Koran while he takes the Congressional oath. That provoked a torrent of righteous anger from Dennis Prager, a popular conservative radio talk show host and columnist. Prager wrote a column for on Nov. 28 in which he said that Ellison should not be allowed to swear on the Koran, and that if he does not swear on the Bible, he should be prevented from claiming his seat.


Never mind that there is no constitutional or even legal requirement dealing in any way with oaths of office, or that the Constitution explicitly prohibits any religious test for any office. To ask Ellison to place his hand on a religious book (the Christian Bible) to which he does not proscribe would make a mockery of that very oath.


Prager also tossed in such wonderful rhetorical flourishes as saying that Ellison’s use of the Koran “undermines American civilization,” that placing one’s hand on the Koran is akin to swearing a Congressional oath on “Mein Kampf,” and that Ellison’s use of his own Holy Book does “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”


Prager is generally considered one of the more reasonable and intelligent members of the conservative radio fraternity. Unlike Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage and Hewitt, for instance, every other word out of his mouth isn’t demonstrably false. Another of the smarter right-wing hosts is Glenn Beck, who also hosts a show on CNN Headline News. But Beck, too, embarrassed himself when confronted with Keith Ellison.


Ellison appeared as a guest on Beck’s television show on Nov. 14, and in his first question he asked, apropos of nothing, he asked Ellison to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies." Ellison managed to maintain his cool after being asked that question. I can’t imagine most others would have.


But perhaps most ridiculous of all was a letter written last week by Virgil Goode, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. Piggybacking on Prager’s column, Goode wrote to hundreds of constituents that if Goode’s proposed controls on immigration are not passed, “there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”


Goode seems unaware of three facts: That the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. are not Muslims at all but rather overwhelmingly Catholic Latin Americans, that one Muslim Congressman elected in one district (out of 435) is a tad unlikely to result in a Muslim Congressional majority anytime soon and that Ellison is not an immigrant at all. The only migration he’s made has been from Michigan to Minnesota.


There are many reasons to be wary of illegal immigration, but the threat of Muslims coming to America and running for Congress is not high among them. And there are many reasons to be wary of radical Islam. But Keith Ellison, a mere local lawyer and former state legislator, is not one of them.


Yes, it is true that Ellison has been reported to have something of a checkered past, including long-ago writings that seemed to endorse black separatism, numerous parking and traffic violations and associations with the questionable organization known as the Congress on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).


But Ellison is not a radical Islamist, and there is nothing in his background that suggests he is. Plus, it’s worth noting that neither Prager nor Beck nor Goode has referenced any of this in criticizing Ellison. That seems to indicate that their problem is not with anything Ellison has said or done, but rather with the very idea of a Muslim in Congress.


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