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Old November 9th, 2006, 05:44 PM  
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Default Muslim Congressman Has Unique Challenge

Muslim Congressman Has Unique Challenge
MINNEAPOLIS (Nov. 9) - Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, sees it this way: Osama bin Laden no more represents Ellison's religion than Timothy McVeigh represented Christianity.

Ellison, a 43-year-old Democrat, won election to the House on Tuesday and will represent all of Minneapolis and several close suburbs - a deeply Democratic, mostly white and largely liberal district that includes the University of Minnesota campus. Ellison is also the first black congressman from Minnesota.

He ran on a call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, universal health care, a higher minimum wage and a more progressive tax code.

The criminal defense attorney and state lawmaker suddenly finds himself among the most prominent members of his faith in the United States, at a time when terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists has focused unwanted attention on many American Muslims.

Ellison, who converted from Catholicism to Islam as a college student, insisted in a radio interview that he is "a politician who happens to be a Muslim" and that "there are people in a better position to speak on all things Muslim than me."

But having said all that, he acknowledged Thursday that his new prominence may bring a responsibility to speak for peaceful Muslims.

"Killing innocents is un-Islamic. Suicide is un-Islamic. Committing suicide to kill innocents is extremely un-Islamic," he said. "These people you read about, these Osama bin Ladens, they don't represent Islam any more than Timothy McVeigh represents Christianity."

Ellison rose quickly to prominence with fiery speaking skills and a tenacious approach to policy that for many recalled the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a sainted figure among many Minnesota Democrats.

When longtime Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo announced his retirement earlier this year, Ellison immediately distinguished himself from a large crowd of Democrats who wanted the seat, and easily won the party endorsement.

But his candidacy stumbled over the summer with a string of missteps that included disclosure of unpaid parking tickets and late tax payments, as well as past associations with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Ellison, a local organizer of Farrakhan's Million Man March in 1995, said he did not know of Farrakhan's anti-Semitism at the time and has disavowed it. He was supported by Jewish friends and colleagues.

Voters said Ellison's background was not much of a factor in their decision to vote for him.

"I'm a fairly progressive voter, so a lot of Ellison's positions were attractive to me," said Chris Strunk, a graduate student at the university. "I'm happy to send a Muslim to Congress, but I would've voted for him regardless of what his religion is."

Ellison said his main message concerning Islam is that Muslims are not much different from anyone else. "It's just one religion among many," he said. "Our folks are quite ordinary, they care about the same things you care about."

He said he does not regard the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as "a clash of civilizations."

"If there's a clash in this world, it's between people who believe they can use horrendous, awful violence to achieve a political goal, against the rest of us," he said.

Ellison said he hopes more Muslims seek office around the nation in the next few years. "The fact is folks probably already know a lot of Muslims," he said. "They just don't know they're Muslims."

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