He is a fairly entrenched incumbent in a district drawn favorably for his party. That fact has helped U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) raise more than $650,000 in his bid for a third term in Congress. That amount includes $173,000 in political action committee contributions from interests ranging from organized labor to health insurers and trial lawyers.
Among individual donors, Ellison – the first Muslim elected to Congress – enjoys strong support from Muslim Americans throughout the country, campaign finance records show.
That's understandable. Tucked in among those contributions, however, are a handful of donors with a history of Muslim Brotherhood connections. For example, Ellison accepted $950 in contributions from Jamal Barzinji and another $1,000 from Hisham Al-Talib. And in late March, the Investigative Projec t on Terrorism has learned, Ellison attended a private fundraiser at the northern Virginia home of a man who led a group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Barzinji and Al-Talib have served as vice presidents at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), a Northern Virginia think-tank federal authorities suspect was part of a terrorist financing network. In addition, a previous FBI investigation concluded that Barzinji and Al-Talib were among U.S. leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood when they came here as students.
The Brotherhood, which also is called the Ikhwan, is an Egyptian-based religious/political movement that seeks to establish Islamic law as "the basis controlling the affairs of state and society." Documents from an FBI investigation from the late 1980s show Barzinji included among "members and leaders of the IKHWAN." He was the secretary general for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) at that time.
ISNA was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the United States, records from that FBI probe and other investigations show.
Investigative records and trial exhibits also show that the organizations donors Barzinji and Al-Talib have been involved in and have helped finance criminal organizations including the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and a think tank that served as refuge for at least four members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's governing board during the early 1990s.
The IIIT was part of a network of Islamic companies and charities long suspected of financing terrorism. It was a principal financier of the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a think tank run by Palestinian Islamic Jihad board member Sami Al-Arian. Fellow PIJ board members Basheer Nafi and current Secretary General Ramadan Shallah worked at the WISE think tank in the early 1990s through visas Al-Arian helped secure.
In 1992, IIIT President Taha Jaber Al-Awani wrote to Al-Arian, saying he considers Al-Arian's think tank "an extension" of IIIT. "When we make a commitment to you or try to offer," Al-Awani wrote, "we do it for you as a group, regardless of the party or the façade you use the donation for."
According to an affidavit filed in connection with a 2002 search of the IIIT and related companies, the letter noted that others at IIIT, including Barzinji and Al-Talib, shared his assessment.
Ellison also received $1,000 from Esam Omeish, former president of the Muslim American Society (MAS), another group founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the United States. The MAS Minnesota chapter paid Ellison's travel expenses for a 2008 pilgrimage to Mecca.
During a 2000 rally, Omeish praised Palestinians for "choosing the jihad way" to liberation.
Other donors include Turkish Islamist Merve Kavakci, and Asad Zaman, principal of the MAS-run Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Minneapolis, and Aly Abuzaakouk, former executive director of the American Muslim Council and a former IIIT publications director.
He also received money from two men who were officers in the American Muslim Council (AMC). Its founder and longtime executive director, Abdurrahman Alamoudi, pled guilty to illegal transactions with Libya that included a plot to kill a Saudi crown prince. Alamoudi was a Muslim Brotherhood member.
Ex-AMC President Mohammed Cheema has given Ellison $1,250 for the 2010 election. When President Bill Clinton invited novelist Salman Rushdie to the White House in 1993, Cheema wrote to the President saying the move showed "a disregard for the feelings of 7 million American Muslims." At the time, Rushdie faced a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel, The Satanic Verses.
Another former AMC official, Yayha Basha, gave Ellison $500.
Ellison's campaign finance reports are surprisingly devoid of donations from executives at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), although this doesn't mean CAIR won't help him raise money. Executive Director Nihad Awad helped organize, and spoke at an intimate March fundraiser for Ellison at Omeish's Virginia home.
It isn't clear why Awad would play such a supportive role, yet not be listed as a donor to Ellison's campaign. It may be that, of all the Islamist groups mentioned, CAIR may be the most politically risky today.
CAIR appears to be the subject of a federal grand jury probe and has been frozen out by the FBI out of concerns over the organization's ties to Hamas. An FBI official explained the cut off in a letter last year. In February, a Department of Justice official spelled out the evidence in a Hamas-support trial that justified naming CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator.
Ellison remains close to CAIR nonetheless. He spoke at three CAIR fundraising dinners last year and took to the House floor to defend the organization after another member made critical statements about the group.
Last fall, Ellison berated a Muslim critic of Islamist organizations such as CAIR and MAS. Rather than taking on specific criticisms made by American Islamic Forum for Democracy founder Zuhdi Jasser, Ellison accused him of fomenting bigotry against his own people.
"I think people who want to engage in nothing less than Muslim-hating really love you a lot because you give them freedom to do that. You say, 'yeah, go get after them.'"
Politicians of all stripes deny being influenced by those who contribute to their campaigns. Contributors, they often say, want nothing more than good government and expect nothing in exchange for their money. Perhaps. In his two terms, Ellison has demonstrated repeated support for Islamist organizations and their issues, even serving as an attack dog against an anti-Islamist Muslim who advocates for the separation between mosque and state.
These contributions are a small slice of Ellison's campaign war chest and hardly constitute the difference between a third term or defeat. By seeking them out, the congressman makes clear that he sees himself not as a representative of all American Muslims. Just like-minded Islamists.