|Keith Ellison speaking at the DNC (Reuters)|
DEARBORN — Six months ago, Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim member of Congress, came to Michigan to campaign for Bernie Sanders. Now he is trying to convince the community to support the senator’s once-rival, Hillary Clinton.
Ellison met with political activists and community leaders over the weekend to discuss challenges and encourage engagement.
In an interview with The Arab American News, Ellison, a Detroit native who represent Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District, said Sanders’ progressive message has not been lost; it is carried by the Democratic nominee’s campaign.
Ellison said Clinton and Sanders worked together to write the most inclusive, progressive platform in the history of the Democratic party.
“We made progress on a number of key factors,” the congressman, who was on the platform committee, said. “In fact, we improved the platform when it comes to minimum wage, Social Security, when it comes to college affordability. We made some real strides forward.”
Ellison added that he, along with James Zogby and Cornel West, were able to introduce “more balanced language around peace in the Holy Land.”
Although an amendment to mention Israeli occupation of the West Bank was rejected, the Democratic platform says, “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.”
Trump the worst ever
The congressman said Arab and Muslim Americans cannot ignore the GOP candidate.
"Donald Trump is the single worst person ever to hold the nomination of a major party," he said. “He literally green lights the bigots of this nation.”
Ellison said the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis openly support Trump, adding that the Republican nominee is suppressing the press, inciting hate and rallying and inspiring racist forces.
“It is important to understand Hillary Clinton has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with us and listen to our concerns,” he said. “We should make the most of that.”
The congressman drew a contrast between Democrats’ inclusiveness and the GOP’s anti-Muslim standpoint.
Ellison said seven Muslims, including himself, Captain Humayun Khan’s parents and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
“We had good representation,” he said. “What was at the Republican National Convention was a lot of anti-Muslim hatred, together with anti-Latino hatred, together with hatred of all kinds of people.”
There was one Muslim speaker at the RNC. Sajid Tarar, founder of American Muslims for Trump, addressed a mostly empty convention floor for less than three minutes. “No Islam,” one of the Republican delegates was heard chanting during Tarar’s speech, multiple media outlets reported.
The congressman said a president Clinton can address civil rights issues that matter to Arab and Muslim Americans, including bank account closures that activists believe are motivated by racial bias.
He explained that the president appoints the secretary of the treasury, who can tackle this matter.
“You cannot simply close people’s accounts on the basis of their race or religion,” he said. “That is another reason why we should support Hillary Clinton, because we already know where Donald Trump is coming from. We can make sure that Secretary Clinton understands this issue, and we can make some progress.”
Ellison stressed supporting the entire Democratic ticket to push for more inclusive and progressive policies.
“We have to remember, it is not just Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the ballot; there are legislative candidates as well.”
Ellison urged a greater level of civic engagement in the face of hate. He said walking away from the political process does not help.
Instead, the answer is being more involved. Ellison said Arab and Muslim Americans need to be a voting bloc that can reward policy makers or punish them through the democratic process.
“Don’t say the system is bad, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Ellison said. “Say the system is not where we want it now, so we’re going to get involved and make it where it should be. That’s the real answer. That’s how we’re going to make a better tomorrow.”
The congressman added that involvement should not end with voting.
“We need people to write op-eds, to be more involved on social media, to serve the community, to run for office,” he said. “We need people to be involved in all aspects of American life. That’s what’s going to see us through.”
Ellison, who is an African American, knows all too well the importance of allyship and coalitions between different marginalized groups.
“We have seen across the nation greater and greater cooperation between groups like Black Lives Matter and Muslim civil rights organizations because we understand someone getting shot because they wear a hoodie and someone getting bullied because they wear a hijab is the same thing,” he said.
Ellison added that the Sikh community is also getting attacked by bigots who think they’re Muslim.
“We have commonality of interests,” he said. “Don’t forget the Latino community. Don’t forget people fighting for rights all over this country who need to come together to make sure this is a free and open land for all.”
Ellison added that disunity opens the door for the “Trumps of this world.”
The congressman took the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran — a symbolic moment highlighting the “American” in the Muslim American identity.
Citing Muslim Hadith, scripture and the Constitution, Ellison pointed to similarities in American and Islamic values. He said he has never felt any conflict between being Muslim and being American.
“In America, we say freedom of religion; in Islam, Allah says there is no compulsion in religion,” he said. “In America, we say treat people equally. The Prophet Mohammad said in his final sermon the White is not better than the Black; the Black is not better than the White; the Arab is not better than the non-Arab; the non-Arab is not better than the Arab.“So much of the message of liberty and equality and justice can be found in Islamic teachings.”