Last spring King Abdullah II of Jordan concluded his speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress with the familiar salutation, “Assalamu-alaikum!” Immediately, in response a booming voice rang out from the center of the chamber with a loud “Walaikum-assalam.” Everyone present was stunned.
For a long moment there was a hushed silence. No doubt, some wondered whether this was an exchange of some secret message right in their midst. By then many heads had turned around and recognized the new face. It was none other than the first-term Congressman Keith Ellison, (D-Minn.), the newly elected representative from the fifth district of Minnesota.
Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.
In a press interview afterwards Ellison mentioned that he responded instinctively, without mulling it over in his head. His Muslim background had prepared him to return the greeting of peace with a proper salutation.
This was the first time in the history of the Congress that such an exchange had taken place right on the floor of that august legislative body. Of course, no Muslim had ever been elected to the Congress until the last mid-term elections.
Congressman Ellison’s presence in Washington has provided a lot of mileage to the Muslim community. He has become well known to the Muslims around the world. Just about every Muslim leader, politician and the local notable want to meet him personally. It is not unusual for Muslim leaders visiting Washington to seek him out and even invite him to their countries.
When he was elected he became an immediate target of the mass media. During the first few months he was subjected to considerable hostility and was taken to task for being a Muslim. It was incredible for many to believe that a Muslim could be elected to the U.S. Congress given the political climate that prevailed in the country.
He has of course handled all the negative reactions remarkably well. It is not unusual for members of congress to remain in Washington without ever becoming known. That has not been the case with Ellison. In fact he received attention even before he was elected to his position. Unlike most others he continues to receive worldwide attention with request for interviews and guest appearances. Thanks to Al-Jazeera, Congressman Ellison has come to be seen throughout the Middle East as a champion for human rights, pluralism and democracy.
Just having one congressman has made a tremendous difference for the Muslims of America. It took only one individual with an Islamic greeting to bring the Congress to rapt attention, indeed, to a deafening silence. At that pivotal moment one could have heard a pin drop in the cavernous chamber.
If one congressman can make such an impact within a matter of months then several would be immensely beneficial to the community. Muslims need to get busy, to get involved in the political process and to work for the election of others to elective bodies either at the national, state or local levels.
The task is urgent and has to be undertaken by Muslims both individually and collectively. The community has to be mobilized. Before his election to the Congress, Ellison served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for two terms. Prior to that he was active in various civic, community and volunteer organizations. That is how he acquired the skills for the elective positions that he attained.
Muslims have to become activists in civic and community affairs. Some are already involved in interfaith dialogue. That is a step in the right direction. The larger society awaits their contributions long overdue.
When Congressman Ellison was disparaged, both on the CNN by Glenn Beck and in the Congress by Representative Virgil Goode (R-Va.), he did not back away. He responded to hate with love. He welcomed the Qur’an controversy and obtained the copy kept by Thomas Jefferson for his swearing-in ceremony. That was an eye-opener to many of his colleagues. Thus, he was able to defuse that issue in a positive way.
At the moment there is a lot of interest in diversity training. Muslims ought to get involved in such efforts. They are natural for projects of this type. Recently, Muslims in Oklahoma participated in one such endeavor and gave out copies of the Qur’an to the state legislators. In my own area, one Muslim activist, Ikram ul Huq, was given recognition by the city of Bloomington, Minn., for his volunteer services to interfaith dialogue.
Sitting around complaining about discrimination, hate and Islamophobia is not going to produce any results. Action needs to be taken. Congressman Keith Ellison and his small group of Muslim supporters have shown the way. You too can join their efforts to improve the condition of the Muslims in America, and to work for the betterment of the nation.
Ghulam M. Haniff teaches at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. He also serves as a contributing columnist for Pakistan Link, a weekly print newspaper. He has served on the board of the Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation, a state agency.