We sat down with Congressman Ellison in the members only dining room of the capitol, a large portrait of George Washington accepting British General Cornwallis’s surrender hanging behind. What Washington fought for and what America stands for is liberty for all, including freedom of religion. However Congressman Ellison’s election has redefined and challenged what many people see as “acceptable” limits of these standards.
Congressman Ellison told us of his conversion to Islam as a young man and about the controversy in detail over his swearing in on the Quran. The reception he received in congress, he said, was exceptional: “I didn’t know how the Democratic leadership was going to react to me so when she reached her hand out in a handshake and pulled me close in, she said, “You swear in on anything you want.” And she was then technically still the minority leader…and then we had a dinner before the big day for all the incoming freshman and she asked me to give the opening prayer and she made the point, well here Keith Ellison is giving the prayer and it’s just like any prayer we might hear anywhere. And I have to say though it was fraught with controversy it was a welcoming environment because Speaker Pelosi made it that way and I thank her for that.”
Congressman Ellison has become a symbol of the promise and beauty of America. What does America mean to him?:
“American identity is an essential commitment to American principles. American identity is rooted is a system of ideas. And this is different from other places around the world where your national identity might be a mixture or race, color, religion, a certain culinary orientation, certain holidays. But in America our holidays are the 4th of July—Independence Day—our holidays are Thanksgiving, a very American holiday. Our cultural ethos is fairness, rule of law, freedom of expression. These are American ideas.
“Americans I think have a certain sense of optimism. Americans think they can solve problems whereas people from other parts of the world are more fatalistic and feel like, well this is how it’s always been and this is how its gonna be. That’s not an American attitude. Americans think, ‘well if it’s not right what re we gonna do about it?’
“I’m proud to be an American. It’s a great thing. Has there ever been a country in the rest of the world that started out taking the land from the Indians, dragging Africans to do the work, denying the right of half the population of women to participate in civic life and then within a few hundred years solving these problems internally. I mean Canada didn’t come down here and make us get along better. We worked it out. It wasn’t easy, people lost their lives, people lost their careers, there were prices paid. But now we live in a time when a black man is president.”
On another note, we are honored that Congressman Ellison has agreed to be on the panel after the premiere of our documentary “Journey into America” at the ISNA convention in Washington on July 4th.