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.
It became clear that not only Somali insomniacs had watched the interview. People were flooding the U.S. Capitol with letters and phone calls expressing their displeasure at my intention to be sworn in on the Quran. Letters of support came in too. (I later found out that members of Congress do not take their oath of office on any book when they are sworn in officially on the House floor. The whole swearing-on-a-Bible thing is ceremonial, not official.)
One of my colleagues-to-be in the House, Virgil Goode, a six-term Republican (and former Democrat), got involved in the controversy. The congressman, who was working on an anti-immigration bill at the time, raised fears of a “Muslim invasion” and declared that he wanted to keep “terrorist states” from entering our country. He wrote in a letter that was distributed to news organizations such as CNN: “When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing-In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Quran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district, and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran.”
But I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t invading America. I was born here. I am an American. And this is America!
We received a letter a few days before the swearing-in that suggested we contact the Library of Congress and request Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. The letter even gave us the reference number for it. I know a good idea when I hear one, so we contacted the Library of Congress. They confirmed Jefferson’s Quran and said that they would be proud to let me use it.
After the swearing-in, two of my fellow Democrats, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Jim Moran of Virginia, grabbed Virgil Goode and introduced us. I greeted him, and we shook hands. I suggested we get together for a cup of coffee. It’s easy to throw mud and promote hatred from afar. But sitting across from a person and talking has the potential to ease fear and suspicion. Too bad we never actually got that cup of coffee together. I was willing.
I knew there were a few members who were hostile to the idea of serving with a Muslim. But folks like Congressmen Kucinich and Moran helped squash that sentiment. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi definitely set the tone. She didn’t do so only for my benefit. I am sure she made certain that I was welcomed because she believes in inclusion. Perhaps she did it for the caucus. But that’s good leaders-hip. She didn’t want us to be divided, especially not over the issue of whether I would be swearing in on a Quran. She grabbed me by the hand and told everybody that I was on the team. I really appreciated that.
The next day was the big ceremonial swearing-in that everyone had been waiting for. (The real one was a collective swearing-in on the House floor. No Bibles. No Qurans. No drama.) House rules allowed for children under twelve to join their member parents on the House floor for the real swearing-in, and I had my son Elijah and daughter Amirah along with me. Elijah, now nineteen, serves as a combat medic in the army.
But then came the ceremonial swearing-in. The swearing-in that drew all the attention but did not have the force of law.
I went first. There was a horde of reporters and photographers present.
Speaker Pelosi leaned in and whispered to me, “You draw quite a crowd.”
“You’re the first woman Speaker,” I said. “I think they’re here for you.” We shared a laugh.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the book here.
Copyright © 2014 by Congressman Keith Ellison. From the forthcoming book MY COUNTRY ‘TIS OF THEE by Keith Ellison to be published by Karen Hunter Publishing/Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.