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).
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.