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The Ellison Elision

A congressman rewrites his own history.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Minnesota’s Keith Ellison made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress. He is a former member and local leader of the Nation of Islam who first ran for office as a Democrat in 1998 under the pseudonym Keith Ellison-Muhammad. He’s a voluble striver and a hustler emitting Marxist claptrap with an Islamic twist. He now puts these qualities on display in his engaging new memoir-cum-manifesto, My Country, ’Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future (Karen Hunter Publishing/Gallery Books, $25.00). 

Keith Ellison at a protest by fast-food workers in Washington, D.C., 2013

Keith Ellison at a protest by fast-food workers in Washington, D.C., 2013

Newscom

The real drama in the book plays out under the surface, out of the reader’s view. Ellison baldly revises his life to remove his most dramatic transformation, from a local leader and advocate of the Nation of Islam to a relentless critic of it (as he appears in the book, as though it were ever thus). Moreover, Ellison’s political manifesto has all the charms of a compilation of New York Times editorials. If you want to understand where the Democratic party is headed, however, Ellison’s manifesto warrants a look all by itself. Holding positions of leadership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (he is co-chair) and in the House Democratic Caucus (he is chief deputy whip), Ellison embodies the strange alliance of radical Islam and the American left.

Fortunately, the book is not all politics. It comes to life when Ellison turns to his family background and his conversion to Islam. The third of five brothers, Ellison was born and raised in a relatively affluent family on the northwest side of Detroit. He radiates justified pride in his family. His parents raised no losers. Of the five brothers, Ellison relates that four have law degrees and one is a doctor. “My parents are five for five: all of their sons have graduate degrees and are gainfully employed,” he says. 

His father, a hardworking psychiatrist, comes across as a dour skeptic in matters religious (he “had had no time for religion”). Ellison describes his father as “less than pleased” when his next-oldest brother, Brian, announced at age 18 that he’d found Jesus (Brian not only attended law school, he went on to become a Baptist minister). Ellison’s mother is a faithful (“Mass-attending, candle-lighting, genuflecting, rosary-bead-praying”) Catholic, and she seems to have prevailed in Ellison’s education, if not in his attitude. Attending high school at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, Ellison never felt the attractions of the faith. “The religion never spoke to me,” he says. 

Ellison discovered Islam as a 19-year-old college student attending Wayne State University in Detroit. Accompanying a college friend to Jummah prayer at the student center, Ellison found a Muslim preacher talking “about universal brotherhood, the evils of racism and the common origins of all of humanity.” He liked what he heard, and he converted to Islam later that year.

What kind of Muslim is he? Ellison expressly addresses the question. He depicts himself as a live-and-let-live kind of Muslim. “If I were Jewish, I would probably be a reform Jew. If I were Christian, I would be one of those come-as-you-are nondenominational Christians,” he confides. “Faith is not about expressing what I believe so that the world can see I’m faithful. I don’t believe in following a strict set of rules to prove my love for God or to prove my faith.” According to Ellison, “In Islam, your religion is what you make of it.” 

As for the vexed question of gay marriage, Ellison concedes that “I get Muslims who come up to me and ask, ‘Brother Keith, how can you be in favor of gay marriage?’ ” Brother Keith explains: “I’m in favor of civil rights for all. I’m in favor of freedom.” 

Those of us wondering about the reconciliation of his faith with his politics now have the answer. Which branch of Islam comports with the agenda of the Democratic party on social issues? Ellison reveals it to be the Ellison branch of Islam. 

With one mystery solved, Ellison silently introduces another. How does his adherence to Islam square with his long involvement with the Nation of Islam? After graduation from Wayne State, Ellison moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. As a third-year law student, writing under the name Keith E. Hakim, Ellison took up the cause of “Minister Louis Farrakhan” and the Nation of Islam in the Minnesota Daily

Making a name for himself in Minneapolis as an attorney activist in the 1990s, Ellison emerged as a local leader of the Nation of Islam under the names Keith X Ellison and Keith Ellison-Muhammad. He first ran, unsuccessfully, for public office seeking the DFL (Democratic) endorsement for state representative as Keith Ellison-Muhammad, a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam. On the threshold of Ellison’s election to Congress, I wrote about his record of support for the Nation of Islam in the article “Louis Farrakhan’s First Congressman” (The Weekly Standard, October 9, 2006).

Ellison was still toeing the Nation of Islam line in February 2000, this time in a speech at a local National Lawyers Guild meeting in support of Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah), who had recently been apprehended at her home in St. Paul. In the course of remarks supporting Soliah/Olson, Ellison complained about the charges previously brought against “Qubiliah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, in retribution against Minister Farrakhan,” by the Office of the United States Attorney in Minneapolis. 

By the time Ellison was elected a Minnesota state representative in 2002, he had shed his pseudonyms and his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. In May 2006, when he secured the endorsement of the Fifth District DFL convention, Ellison’s long public record as a leader of, and apologist for, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam created a problem for him. In the context of a competitive Democratic primary the following September, Ellison’s past threatened to undermine his support from segments of the Democratic base including, but not limited to, the district’s Jewish community. 

Writing about Ellison on the blog Power Line during the spring and summer of 2006, I discovered this personally when prominent local Democrats sought me out to share information about Ellison’s background. They were not pleased by the prospect of a former local leader of the Nation of Islam serving as the face of the Democratic party in Minneapolis, or by the failure of Minneapolis’s Star Tribune to retrieve information in its own archives for a glimpse of Ellison’s
public doings on behalf of the Nation of Islam.

Ellison dealt with the problem of his past by submitting an extremely misleading letter to the Minnesota chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In the letter Ellison artfully minimized his involvement with the Nation of Islam while he nevertheless acknowledged his role “work[ing] with local members of the Nation of Islam.” In light of his past “connections” to the Nation of Islam, Ellison stated in his 2006 letter: “I have long since distanced myself from and rejected the Nation of Islam due to its propagation of bigoted and anti-Semitic ideas and statements, as well as other issues.” In mitigation he pleaded ignorance, claiming: “I did not adequately scrutinize [their] positions and statements.”

Ellison makes no such acknowledgment or plea in My Country, ’Tis of Thee. Rather, he rewrites history to eliminate his long involvement with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, dispatching his activities down the memory hole. Looking back on his career in Minnesota, Ellison has erased Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam from the picture. Ellison has expunged his own record. 

Ellison does not simply airbrush the picture. He presents himself as a critic of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. He writes disparagingly that 

the organization wasn’t set up to take on the establishment. It was designed to avoid racism—not confront it. The NOI preached separation, which was the same message preached by the Ku Klux Klan. .  .  . The NOI posed no threat to the status quo; it posed no threat to the system of racism.

Ellison pours it on, criticizing Farrakhan’s performance at the Million Man March (which Ellison attended) and after: “He could only wax eloquent while scapegoating other groups.”

Ellison goes out of his way to note: “I didn’t come to [Islam] through the Nation of Islam, as some African Americans have done.” Although he must be drawing on his own experience, Ellison conceals the starkly autobiographical element in his observation: “In the NOI, if you’re not angry in opposition to some group of people (whites, Jews, so-called ‘sellout’ blacks), you don’t have religion.” I doubt whether leaving the Nation of Islam has helped Ellison much in the anger management department, but it can’t have hurt.

What’s going on? As he notes in the acknowledgments, Ellison wrote the book with Karen Hunter, of Karen Hunter Publishing, part of the Suitt-Hunter Media Group. Suitt-Hunter “works with celebrities and emerging artists, identifying opportunities to expand the individual’s brand into ancillary markets.” Life as a representative in the House minority doesn’t suit Ellison, and he obviously senses the opportunity to take his radicalism to a mainstream left-wing audience. With a sure feel for the main chance, he finds that his faith provides a means of ascent. 

Ellison begins the book with his attendance at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Obama, suffice it to say, seems to have inspired him to certain “dreams” and to an “audacity” that goes well beyond hope.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the blog Power Line (powerlineblog.com).

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