On a recent summer day, about 150 people, most of them Muslim, gathered at a Crowne Plaza hotel outside Minneapolis. They paid $100 apiece for an all-American dinner—chicken and carrots with a baked potato—which at least one attendee described as “simply terrible.” The meal, the staid decor: it was a scene commonplace in the world of American electoral politics.
Commonplace, that is, except for the goal of the attendees: to elect the first Muslim to Congress.
Their candidate, Keith Ellison, who is running in Minnesota’s largely white and left-leaning fifth district, could well win. In early May, Ellison, 43, secured the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), a backing which historically has all but assured Minnesota Democrats of victory in their primary, and subsequently the seat. With the September 12 primary right around the corner, Ellison’s internal polling data shows him with a slim lead over his two main opponents, Mike Erlandson and Ember Reichgott Junge. But almost since its inception, Ellison’s campaign has been beset by controversy—including accusations of anti-Semitism—and though they are itching for better representation in Washington, even some Muslims are now having misgivings about him.
America’s estimated five to seven million Muslims are nearly invisible when it comes to holding office. Currently, the highest-ranking Muslim public official is Larry Shaw, a North Carolina state senator. “There’s a fundamental crisis here,” says Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), one of the largest national groups working to spur Muslim political involvement. Saeed says Muslims have traditionally kept out of American politics for a variety of reasons: Muslim immigrants often assumed they would return to their country of origin; some also had concerns that engagement in a non-Islamic state conflicted with their faith. AMA has worked to change this—with limited success. In the 1990s, the group ran a “2000 Muslims by 2000” campaign, aimed at placing 2,000 Muslim elected officials in the United States government, from city and county levels up to the federal, by the turn of the century. They got about 700. That number nosedived after the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to AMA data, only 70 Muslims ran in 2002.
Today there are signs that this number could again be on the rise—about 100 Muslims ran for office in 2004—and the hope is that an Ellison victory could accelerate the trend. “Before it was almost unfathomable that a Muslim could get elected,” says the Islamic Center of Minnesota’s Sumbal Mahmud, who supports Ellison. “The Muslim community needs this hope, that there is a place for us in this country. Maybe someday I too could run for Congress.” The same optimism united the coalition of Minneapolis-area Muslim leaders who put together the August 25 fundraising dinner, which featured speeches by James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Ziad Amra, a Minneapolis businessman who was one of the event’s coordinators, says he is hopeful that having Ellison in Congress will spur greater civic involvement in general among Muslim communities: “We’re excited,” he says. “It’s only one of 435 [House seats], but it would be a start. You have to start somewhere.”