First Muslim Congressman Says He's Not a 'Symbol'

ByCLAIRE SHIPMAN via via logo

Jan. 4, 2006 — -- Keith Ellison goes to Washington as the first Muslim elected to Congress, and his intended use of the Koran in his swearing-in ceremony has ignited a firestorm on cable news shows and talk radio in recent weeks.

Ellison says he wants to use the Koran instead of the Bible when he is sworn in today. Some of his fellow lawmakers have used the Ellison controversy to further a tough immigration law agenda.

"I am restricting immigration so that we don't have a majority of Muslims elected to the United States House of Representatives," said Rep. Virgil Goode, Jr., R-Va.

However, Ellison still seems baffled by the fuss over the Koran.

"It's the scripture I read everyday, and it's the book that I, you know, draw inspiration from," Ellison said.

The Minneapolis Democrat says he is not planning to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives as a "symbol."

"I don't think I will be when I start focusing on issues like Iraq, getting out of Iraq, covering the uninsured, increasing the minimum wage," Ellison said. "All the religious stuff is going to be less important than the bread-and-butter issues that people care about everyday."

As Ellison works the political junket for a day at home in Minneapolis, you start to understand his insistence that he's a politician who just happens to be Muslim.

The former state representative and criminal defense lawyer charms almost every crowd. Ellison understands he will be a symbol for some, despite his hesitance.

"Well, you know, I hope that my election means that people who are Muslims in America feel they are a greater part of the country, that they belong," he said.

In fact, Ellison's got the burden of making double history, as both the first black member of Congress from Minnesota and the first Muslim. But his real case of nerves comes from simply doing a good job as freshman congressman.

"You know, it's like Jackie Robinson. Did he worry about being the first black baseball player?" Ellison said. "No, he's worried about getting a hit. He's worried about getting on base."

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