Ellison: smearing Obama as Muslim ‘won’t work’

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U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison — a Muslim who during his own campaign said, “I’m not running as a Muslim candidate” but met with religious smears all the same — told the BBC Saturday that attempts to paint Barack Obama, a Christian, as a Muslim candidate “won’t work.”

“It’s somebody’s attempt to try to inflame and inject fear into the campaign, and I don’t think it’s going to work,” said the Minneapolis Democrat, who has endorsed and pledged his superdelegate vote to Obama. “In my campaign, I had my opponents send out over 110,000 pieces of literature trying to smear me regarding my Muslim faith, and I was elected overwhelmingly. So I don’t think it’s really going to work. I think that the proponents of this kind of thing are operating under the false impression that Americans are bigoted people, and we’re not.”

Even as media mentions of physical threats to Obama ramp up, Ellison downplayed the political threat to the presidential hopeful posed by photos of him in a turban, attention to his middle name (Hussein), and an endorsement from Louis Farrakhan (links to whom gave Ellison’s candidacy its own troubles).

Hear the BBC’s segment with Ellison (2:15 to 5:55) or read Minnesota Monitor’s transcription of the interview below.

Transcription of interview with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison on BBC World Service “Reporting Religion” program, March 1, 2008.

BBC: Is being associated with Islam really detrimental to [Obama’s] campaign? I asked Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress.

ELLISON: I just don’t really think it’s that big of a deal. I just think it’s somebody’s attempt to try to inflame and inject fear into the campaign, and I don’t think it’s going to work.

BBC: And is there fear and prejudice deep in the minds of enough Americans for it to make a difference?

ELLISON: No. In my campaign, I had my opponents send out over 110,000 pieces of literature trying to smear me regarding my Muslim faith, and I was elected overwhelmingly. So I don’t think it’s really going to work. I think that the proponents of this kind of thing are operating under the false impression that Americans are bigoted people, and we’re not.

BBC: Coming back to Senator Obama, doesn’t the idea that a man whose middle name is Hussein can’t get elected to the White House, doesn’t that have some currency?

ELLISON: Hussein just means “handsome.” That’s all it means. It’s a common name, as common as John or James out in the Western countries. People aren’t going to be inflamed about it. There are names outside of the Western world that are extremely common but to us they might sound foreign or Middle Eastern, and so some bigots might think that that’s going to scare us away from a good candidate, but it’s just not gonna.

BBC: Let’s talk about another strand of Islam which came up during the campaign, and that is the endorsement by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. In the end, Senator Obama had to denounce that and reject the endorsement. You were involved in the organization of the Million Man March with Louis Farrakhan. Did you have to live that down a bit?

ELLISON: Well, there was some people tried to make a big deal out of that, but you know, there were over two million people at the Million Man March and these folks were, and like me, were responding to a call for justice, and to call our country to have greater inclusion of African-Americans, and also call African-Americans to take a more proactive position in terms of improving our own situation in America. So it’s really not the kind of thing that I think would cause much trouble. In terms of living it down, yeah, people raised it up, and I had to help explain it to people who didn’t understand it, but after I did, it really wasn’t much of an issue.

BBC: We’re just about to hear from some Muslim voters in Ohio. People talk about the Jewish vote in America. Is there an Islamic vote now?

ELLISON: There’s an emerging Muslim vote in America, because we have estimates of between three and nine million Muslims in America. Many of them live in high population centers. And of course today, elections are always won by thin margins. And so it’s a very relevant population, particularly in major urban areas such as Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland. So I think that there really is the possibility of an emerging Muslim vote but I think it’s still in an embryonic stage. And I think that we’re talking about a community that is two-thirds immigrant background, so it usually takes immigrant communities a little, a few generations to really get into politics. But in the case of the Muslim community it seems like they’re getting involved pretty fast.

BBC: And what are the issues that Muslim voters will want addressed by the candidates?

ELLISON: Civil rights will be a major issue. Many people of Muslim faith or Muslim background, having Muslim names or having a national origin in a Muslim country, can tell stories about being stopped in airports, when they’re doing nothing other than going to see family or conducting business activity. Many Muslim people can explain how they’ve had visits from immigration officials or others that appear to them to be unwarranted. And so I think that civil rights will be a major issue.

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