In mid-November Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison announced he would run for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. He received support from influential Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Senator Chuck Schumer, who is expected to be the Senate minority leader in 2017.
Ellison's personal story in many ways is the kind that makes America exceptional: a black man who converted to Islam and found himself at the center of American politics. As such he represents two minority groups, and has been outspoken in support of both.
What's also exceptional is that he has supported extreme ethno-religious nationalism as well. In law school at the University of Minnesota he wrote passionately about the Nation of Islam and affirmative action in columns that might raise eyebrows today with terms like "white barbarism," but surely were normal in hyper-racially-aware campus life.
An April 1990 op-ed The Minnesota Daily put online under Ellison's pen-name Keith Hakim even proposes the creation of a black country in the US South. "Blacks, of course, would not be compelled to move to the black state, and, of course, peaceful whites would not be compelled to move away."
Ellison later distanced himself from the Nation of Islam and these black nationalist concepts, noting in 2006 that the Nation of Islam leader was antisemitic and "I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did."
Now the pro-Ellison crowd is trying to highlight his progressive views. J.J Goldberg at The Forward says the congressman supports "gay rights and marriage equality, women's equality and empowerment." His views on Israel are merely left of center, he "stands on platforms with fellow leftists and Muslims and publicly defends Israel's rights."
On November 29 the Investigative Project on Terrorism released a 2010 clip of Ellison condemning Israel and US foreign policy.
The Anti-Defamation League excoriated his views. But, wait a sec, supporters said. Read a transcript of the full tape. There's nothing outrageous here.
Well, I read it, and so should you. Goldberg says that those who oppose Ellison "target him in an attempt to combat the visible presence of Muslims at all levels of American society on the assumption that what's good for Muslims must be bad for Israel." Ellison is merely a "Muslim peacenik" whose sympathy is for Palestinians.
Ellison's 2010 speech at a fundraiser with Esam Omeish, who had run for Virginia State Assembly, was in itself strange.
Omeish was asked to resign from the Virginia State Commission on Immigration by governor Tim Kaine in 2007 when it was revealed in a December 2000 speech on "Jerusalem Day" he had claimed Palestinians "have known that the jihad way is the way to liberate your land." So why was Ellison standing by Omeish? "I'm bringing 16 Minnesota companies to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh and Dammam," Ellison told the guests in 2010. "What's going on with the US-Libyan relation, business relationship? We got to build it up. Morocco, we got to build it up. Saudi Arabia, we got to build it up."
Ellison said it was the job of Muslim Americans to mobilize, "by supporting my campaign you're keeping me in business doing this stuff." The "stuff" was more bilateral business relationships with the "Muslim world," and he claimed that "these business relationships can be leveraged to say that we need some, a new deal politically."
Part of that would mean "if you have come to America, if you've left Syria, let's do something about that sanctions bill that prohibits trade."
I want you to read these quotes again. Here is "progressive" Keith Ellison talking about increasing relations with Saudi Arabia and taking a delegation there. A delegation to one of the most repressive regimes in the world, where there are public beheadings and women may not drive or travel without permission. He didn't say "let's build relations with liberal Muslim countries," but rather Saudi Arabia. And where else? Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.
He wanted sanctions lifted on Syria under Bashar Assad and he wanted Syrian Americans who fled the brutal, fascistic Assad government to support that.
This is Ellison's true face: not anti-Israel and antisemitic, but an Islamic supremacist who was also either ignorant of the reality in Syria under the Assad regime, or a willing dupe for these dictators. He complained that the Middle East was "a region of 350 million all turns on a country of seven million," referring to Israel's role in US policy. His solution? For Americans who "trace their roots back to those 350 million [to get] involved." When Muslim Americans get involved, he saw them as Muslim first: "I am telling [you] that the Muslim [Capitol] Hill staffers are a group of highly, highly competent professionals. Brother Assad Akhtar, yeah, who did such a great job..." It's not clear who "brother" Assad is, but it's clear that if a Christian or Jewish American spoke about "the Christian capital hill staffers, brother John," it would be problematic.
It was a very religious speech also. He said "only Allah knows who is going to win" and "I keep the ummah [Muslim community] in my prayer constantly." Ellison's speech wasn't about anything liberal, this was a speech about chauvinism, Saudi Arabia-style chauvinism. Does this sound liberal and progressive, or like a religious reactionary? Can anyone imagine a US politician saying,
"We just want to say all praise is due to Christ for those Christian doctors and nurses and physicians who every single day heal Americans"? That's a direct quote from the 2010 speech, but with Christ substituted for "Allah" and Christian for "Muslim." Well you can imagine a right-wing Christian conservative saying it. But Ellison said this under the guise of "liberalism."
The real story with Ellison is that, as with so many religious-nationalist Muslims in the West, his views dovetail much more logically with the extreme Right.
He says God decides who wins and "all praise is due to God." He asserts that US policy should be guided by a religious lobby in the US to connect the US to coreligionists abroad, and his complaint about the Israel lobby is merely why should such a small number of believers have such influence. The solution? More Muslims will counterbalance the influence of "them," the word he uses for Jews in his speech.
"They live in my district, they are my constituents. I have a moral and legal obligation to meet with them...they want to tell me, well you know the real issue is, the real issue is Iran...if Iran is such a big deal, is it a big enough deal for you to suspend your building houses, colonizing what will be the future state of Palestine?" In this zero-sum worldview there's no place for rightwing and left-wing Muslims, secular and religious; for him Syria and Saudi Arabia were the same in 2010. This isn't the "pro-choice" story, this is anti-choice, a clear view that Muslims in America have one choice, and that's to blindly support every Muslim country abroad and every Muslim "brother" in America. That's a scary thought and one out of step with the Democratic party's traditions and the secular view of politics.
The reality is that things are not black and white and nothing is more dangerous than Ellison's religious test for people. If Ellison wants to think that Israel uses the US as "their ATM," as he said, or complain Israel is "colonizing what will be the future state of Palestine," that's less scary than his views on Saudi Arabia.
The offensive statement, "that country [Israel] has mobilized its diaspora to do its bidding in America," is less frightening than his solution: "The question is, with all of us here, we ought to be able to do at least as much." The solution isn't to reduce Israel's influence, but to mobilize Muslim Americans to march in lockstep against it. But Muslim Americans have other interests abroad, a Muslim Kurdish woman from Iran has different concerns than a Muslim Ahmadi man from Pakistan or a Shia from Iraq.
Marching in nationalist, religious lockstep is not what America is about. That's what sectarians in Syria think life is about. If you're a Shi'ite you do X and if you're a Sunni you do Y. Being Muslim does not imply that you must support Saudi Arabia's outrageous policies. Lots of Muslims understand that nuance.
But in the West elected leaders like Ellison have eschewed responsibility to fight for the same liberal values in the Islamic world that they pretend to support in the US. Too often politicians who are Muslim in the West end up being members of liberal political parties while not espousing anything liberal. An Islamist Swedish Green Party politician refused to shake hands with women. That's not liberal and it should be condemned as the right wing extremism that it is.
There are plenty of real liberals in the Muslim world and in the West. For some reason what percolates to the top is the reactionary views of those like Ellison's 2010 speech that puts "Muslim" first, and rights second.
If those like Ellison think US policy toward Israel is immoral, as he says – "this is about being pro something, it's about being pro human dignity" – where is the human dignity in Assad's Syria, or Libya under Gaddafi, or Saudi Arabia? Where is the human dignity for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to be whipped 1,000 times, like African-American slaves once were? Where is the dignity for the 28-year-old Saudi woman who was gang raped on video and sentenced to 200 lashes? How about human dignity for Asia Bibi in Pakistan, sentenced to death for blasphemy?
Ellison says "build it up." How about dignity for the Kurdish towns harmed by ongoing war in Turkey? Maybe Ellison is right that some economic relations should be predicated on Israel's actions, then subject Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others to the same quid-pro-quo, don't take delegations to the most religious, fascist country in the Middle East, take them to Tunisia where local democrats crave investment.
Ellison said in 2010, "When I go to Jumuah [Friday prayer], I can get an update on Sudan, on Pakistan." An update about executions and genocide in those countries? Ellison has nothing critical to say. He complains about the Jewish Diaspora in the US supporting Israel, but Jewish Americans are among the foremost critics of Israel. Ellison doesn't say Muslims should critique the outright fascism, autocracy, monarchy, intolerance and inquisitions in many Muslim countries, and support the liberals there, he presents a blind nationalist, chauvinist, religious approach to partnership.
A nuanced liberal approach doesn't see the world through a religious lens. It doesn't have a religious test for US foreign policy. Ellison should be held to account, not for his views on Israel, but his views on America, Muslims and the Muslim world.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.