First Muslim African American U.S. Congressman, The ENGAGING Keith Ellison

By Samuel Ayyub Bilal

CHICAGO, Ill. — A representative group of  Chicago’s Muslim African Americans  recently held a reception for  Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim (African American) to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

With the backdrop of African American History Month, and indeed Mr. Ellison’s election to Congress is historic, at the downtown offices of the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U) Local 1, Mr. Ellison showed that he does not shy away from being Muslim in a very public sense.

The reception/fund-raiser also set the stage to develop into an on-going relationship between the influential Islamic figures in attendance and Congressman from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he has won repeat terms in Congress – voted in by a predominantly Christian/non-Muslim constituency.

“This brother stands on principle,”  said Roderick Bashir, one of the host in his introduction of the Congressman. “When he was sworn in as Congressman, he insisted on being sworn in on the Holy Qur’an, though there was a lot of controversy about it.” Bro. Bashir is Vice President of the politically influential SEIU.

The  progressive Democratic Congressman  Ellison engaged his audience in two and a half hours of dialogue with prominent  Chicago Muslim activists and scholars.   The general theme was how and why Chicago African  American Muslims, as well as all American Muslims, must participate in the American democratic process, from  the “grassroots”  and local government level to the top echelons of U.S. government.

During the Congressman’s remarks and  the question and answer session which followed,  suggestions were made as to how those in attendance might assist him in his re-election effort this year and in the future. Though he serves Minnesota as a Congressman, Ellsion related how his service from another state is  also  beneficial to the Chicago Muslim community and to the nation.

As a distinguished statesman, Ellison has been called upon by the U.S. State Department to represent the U.S. abroad – a clear demonstration of how a devoted Muslim serves his country and his faith.

Speaking of the SEIU Local 1 that Bro. Bashir serves as its Vice President, Congressman Ellison said,  “Its  the most activist union out there; it gets out among the people, talks with them.”

The Congressman also made reference to Dr. Aminah McCloud, another of the hosts present and professor at DePaul University’s Islamic Studies Department, that her “scholarship helps to guide” him in his political action.

When Muslims engage in the   American political process, the Congressman explained, they not only contribute to the Nation’s well-being but also protect and advance their own individual, Islamic, ethnic and racial community’s interests,  while participating in this American democracy.

Just by voting for an elected official, for example, Muslims  and other citizens are able to effect governmental and social  policy, as their  elected representatives make legislation which affect even executive policy, 48-year-old  Congressman explained.

As Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, Rep. Ellison  serves on the House Finance Committee, is Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive  Caucus, and Vice Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Along with Bro. Roderick Bashir and Dr. Aminah McCloud, others among the hosting group were Sis. Ndidi A. Okakpu and Imam Makram El-Amin of Masjid Nur – Congressman Ellison’s home mosque in Minneapolis, though Imam El-Amin was unable to attendance.

Urging the audience to “go down to the Obama For President”  Campaign Office in Chicago and work to get him re-elected, Congressman Ellison noted that  with President Obama’s re-election he can continue to  execute policy  that would be good for the whole country, including American Muslims.

“It takes 50 percent plus one person” in Congress to vote for legislation which sets policy, he explained. “All we have to do (as citizens) is vote to get 50 percent-plus-1 members in the Congress.

Appealing to the African American Muslim community which has a significant role to play in the American democracy, the Congress added, “I am asking you to support my campaign; …. the level of political engagement in Chicago area is high.”

The Congressman traditionally in terms of his years in Congress has enjoyed the support of the immigrant Muslim communities in Illinois and other states, observers note. His appeal was for African American Muslims to get more involved.

When someone asks, “What is Ellison doing in Chicago,” ask them, “So you believe in religious freedom?”  If one does in fact believe in religious freedom, then one must realize that when a Congressman stands for religious freedom …, it affects Muslims, Christians, Jews and others  all over America.

When Chicago and other activists in other states  help his campaign with fund-raising  and other political matters, they are in fact  empowering him  to push for legislation, which among other matters, protect the religious rights of Muslims, too.

To run for office in the United States is an expensive venture that usually weeds out many with great potential but little money. Such financial support enables Congressman Ellison to serve on important committees and hold other legislative action which  influence the  national interest of Muslims as well as of others, he explained.

The Congressman based his remarks on the theme “inclusiveness of the American democracy and the right and responsibility for all citizens and all groups, including Muslims, to participate in it.” To whom much is given, much is expected….

The Congressman acknowledged the weekly newspaper, Muslim Journal, calling it a tremendous asset. “It’s important that you get that paper into the hands of everyone,” in Congress he explained, the  President’s Administration and the “grassroots.

Congressman Ellison spoke with warm regard about his relationship with the late Muslim leader, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, saying, “A highlight in my life was when Imam Mohammed came to visit me in my Detroit home before moving away to Minnesota.”

Also in attendance at the Chicago reception for Congressman Ellison were Mr. Clyde El-Amin, a retired President of Olive-Harvey Community College after serving many years as President of Kennedy-King City College; Imam/Dr. Mikal Ramadan, Imam of Masjid Taqwa and a hospital Emergency Room administration, who attended with his wife Agnes; Imam Bashir Ali of Peoria, Ill., who is a Labor specialist; Muslim Journal writer Amatullah Sharif; Bro. Khalid Sharreef, businessman and activist from the community  of Imam Mohammed;  educator and head of the C-Mecca School, Dr. Bambade Shakoor-Abdullah and husband  CPA Kasib Abdullah; radio host and retired Muslim prison chaplain, Imam Frederick Thaufer Al-Deen, husband of Dr. McCloud; Dr. Robert B. Donaldson, Mayor of Hazel Crest, Ill., who often speaks of Roderick Bashir assuming this position after his own retirement, Mr. Khaaliq and Mrs. Aesha El-Amin from the community of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, Atty. Anthony Simpson of IMAN, and several other able activists,  scholars and businessmen.

All together the makeup was for a very powerful group  of Chicago Muslims  who can accomplish what they will themselves to do – with the Help of Allah!


ON WAR: Promoting peace at home and abroad is one of my top priorities as a Member of Congress. I believe Congress has a Constitutional obligation to debate the wisdom of fighting wars. I serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees U.S. diplomatic and national security interests throughout the world.

I have visited both Iraq and Afghanistan and I believe that it is time for the United States to start winding down both conflicts. Over the last decade, we have spent over a trillion dollars on war – funds that could have been used to create jobs, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and educate our children.

ON FOREIGN POLICY: When it comes to Congressional actions that affect our relationships with foreign governments and citizens, I believe that U.S. policy should reflect the same principles that drive our domestic policy: respect for differences, care for humanitarian needs, and commitment to peace and improving the lives of all people.

ON VETERANS: I am proud of the accomplishments Congress has made to help support and honor our veterans. We provided the largest increase in funding of Veterans Affairs history with the passage of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies appropriations bill in 2008.

The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 is a law that enhances veterans employment and work training opportunities, addresses veterans housing issues, upgrades disability, insurance and survivor programs, and requires a comprehensive study of best treatment practices for chronic multi-symptom illness in Gulf War I veterans.

We passed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, a law which offers the caregivers of veterans training, compensation, respite care, and access to mental health counseling.

ON CONSUMER JUSTICE: I believe consumer justice issues are critical because banking and credit have become such a key element for attaining economic prosperity in our society. America’s working families are increasingly squeezed between the rising cost of everyday expenses and falling real wages.

To make up the difference between what they’re taking home and what’s due to the doctor or to the utility companies working families are increasingly turning to credit cards and other high-cost consumer loans to finance their daily costs of living.

I believe in the long run we need to establish an economy where our working families are not forced to rely on these products to finance their everyday expenses. Until that day arrives, we must make sure the credit terms offered to consumers are fair and free from abuse.

ON ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: I believe we can live in a country in which everyone can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat food without toxins. Many Americans choose to embrace sustainable environmental practices, but history shows that we can’t rely solely on corporations and the free market to do what’s right.

I believe it is the responsibility of government to take decisive action to protect our natural resources, enact sustainable policies, and promote a green economy. We need a safe and clean planet for all communities, not just for some.

I am a strong supporter of the environmental justice movement, which brings low-income communities and communities of color into the larger efforts to create a cleaner world for future generations.

ON IMMIGRATION: The United States is a proud country of immigrants, and Minnesota is a shining example of this history. As with past generations, new Americans want what all Americans want: Safe neighborhoods, good schools, and the chance to raise a family and succeed.

Immigrants today are often asked to work in the toughest jobs for the least amount of pay, and are cast into the shadows of our society. Our immigration system is broken, and I am committed to working in Congress to fix it.


Leave a Reply