Today Weekend Reader brings you My Country, ’Tis Of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future by U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. In 2010, Representative Ellison joined Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has since been deeply committed to social issues and fighting endlessly on behalf of the middle class. The excerpt below details the day Congressman Ellison made history–when he assumed office in 2007, becoming the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress.
You can purchase the book here.
January 4, 2007
My right hand was over my heart and my left hand was on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. Standing with me were my wife, whose mother had immigrated from the Dominican Republic; my mom, a Catholic from Louisiana who can trace her roots to a French aristocrat, an African medicine woman, and Croatian immigrants; my dad, a lifelong Republican and overall contrarian, who could not be more proud; and my older brother Brian, a Baptist minister. Other family huddled all around.
There was so much history, controversy, and pride over this moment: the first Muslim being elected to the U.S. Congress. There was pride from my family and my district. Indeed, there was pride throughout the entire Muslim world; I received calls and even saw headlines from throughout the Muslim world. On the other hand, there was anger and bitterness from some quarters too. On one level, I understood all of these reactions.
On that day, I also recognized that my faith—the practice of my faith in Allah—is fundamentally American. The irony is that this nation was founded by people escaping religious persecution, seeking freedom to worship God in their own ways, however they chose to worship, if they chose to worship. But there was a sentiment in America running counter to that notion of freedom. Every day, Americans—citizens—were being labeled as terrorists, and became targets for violence and other unthinkable acts, simply because of their faith.
I hadn’t originally planned to swear on the Quran. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about it.
A couple of days before the election, as a favor to the host, I agreed to go on a local Somali public access cable TV show. It was late, and I didn’t expect there to be many viewers outside of a few Somali insomniacs. The interviewer asked me the usual questions about my campaign and my plans to serve the district. Then he asked, “So, if you win the election, will you swear in on the Quran?”
We had been totally focused on getting through the primaries, and then the election and the tasks to be completed once in office, and the swearing-in wasn’t on my mind.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I never thought about it.”
He asked again, “If you win—you can imagine yourself winning, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, imagine yourself standing up there getting ready to be sworn into the United States Congress. What book is your hand placed on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it a Quran?”
“Yeah, I guess it would be a Quran.”
We moved on to other topics, and I didn’t think much of it until it exploded into a national issue a few days later. Having won the election, what I had said in that interview would become a reality. This sent a lot of people into a frenzy.
Dennis Prager led the charge. He was a syndicated conservative radio talk-show host who wrote an editorial on the website Townhall.com entitled “America, Not Keith Ellison, Decides What Book a Congressman Takes His Oath On.” According to Prager, I was undermining American civilization. He said that I was a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden. My mother, who regularly listened to Prager’s show, was so outraged by what he was saying that she called in to give him a piece of her mind.