I had a chance to have a conversation with Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman in the history of the United States, this week at the U.S. House of Representatives. Ellison won the open seat for Minnesota's 5th congressional district in 2006 and is also the first African-American elected to the House from Minnesota.
In addition to being the first and still-only Muslim congressman, Mr. Ellison is also member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, a key committee that will take the Armenian Genocide Resolution, H. Res. 252, to vote on March 4.
I was both curious to hear his story so far as a Muslim congressman, but also wanted to get in touch with him before the voting day and hear about his position over the issue first hand.
I started the interview by first asking his position on the resolution because of the urgency of the matter. He said: "I am still developing my position. I would like to know how this affects Turkey and Armenia’s relationship. Is it going to help the relationship, improve it or degrade it? I need to know the answer on that before I decide on this resolution... Is this resolution going to improve the well-being of people in Armenia or Turkey or anywhere?"
Congressman Ellison also said America still has not recognized its own genocide or genocides that it committed, yet tries to give lessons to the other countries. Ellison said: "And you know, we have not acknowledged yet the genocide that was committed against the Native American tribes."
Congressman Ellison basically was telling me that everybody should clean his or her own house first before telling others what to do. Ellison was clearly uncomfortable with the situation he is in and it was pretty obvious to see from his attitude while discussing the issue. Furthermore, it was also my impression from his statements that he does not find the U.S. Congress is suitable and qualified taking a such decision over the events that happened nearly 100 years ago and in a country that is half-way around the world.
I also asked him how he would describe serving in the U.S. Congress as a Muslim congressman and if there was any particular difficulty to that. Ellison said: "Being a Muslim in the Congress has been a very interesting perspective. I have been very well treated by my colleagues, other than some occasional bad behavior and some ignorant things said about Islam."
There was a huge controversy in America when the congressman first got elected and announced his intention to use the Koran instead of the Bible at his photo-op at the swearing in ceremony and this drew some criticism especially from some conservative columnists.
Ellison has a very interesting life story. He was born into a Catholic family, with a very religious mother who often does social work at a church. He converted to Islam when he was 19. One of his brothers is a Christian-Baptist minister, who calls his Muslim congressman brother from time-to-time to speak at his congregation. And his minister brother stood shoulder-to--shoulder when Ellison was sworn in with a two volume Koran, published in London in 1764 that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
Ellison told me that the initial difficulties of being a Muslim congressman had passed for now and he was becoming a regular Congressman.
He said, "[He was] trying to encourage Muslim-Americans to be more engaged with the government, encourage them to engage with their congressmen and open lines and communications [at every level] so, when the Congress considers various issues related to the Muslim community, they have better perspectives."
And when I asked how he considers the overall experience, the congressman looked out of the window and said: "Being a Muslim congressman has been a good experience so far."
I also asked Ellison how he views U.S. President Barack Obama's new opening up policies to the Muslim world and if those initiatives had been working out so far.
Ellison says, "The effort that President Obama tried to do, when he went to Ankara and then Cairo, was very ambitious and it was the right thing to do. The truth is, it is a tough job and I thought it would have been smoother. But I think that he is committed. There have been setbacks for the initiative, though I still embrace the vision that Obama set forward. However, it seems like this process will probably take longer than President Obama or anyone thought."
When I pressed him whether, after a full year of seeming failure, there will be success in the end, Ellison said, "I still think that this vision can still be successful and we are still trying to reach out."
Ellison also touched on Turkey's role following a question about where he sees Turkey fitting into this vision. According to Ellison, "Turkey is a forefront country in terms of the relationship between the Muslim world and the Western world. Turkey sits strategically between both.
“It is a bridge country and as a Muslim, I am very proud of the role that Turkey plays. I would encourage Turkey to uphold those values that both the Western world and the Muslim world share, the values that we share are not exclusive one group from another. For instance, we all care about honesty, we all care about justice, respect and religious tolerance. And Turkey is a country where there is a lot of religious tolerance, I think.
“There are different ways to be a Muslim in Turkey, Muslims do not only have to submit to one rigid way. And Turkey should continue on this way. So, I’m hoping to continue on this project, [of better relationships with the Muslim world for the U.S.]. I think that these reaching out policies are worthy and they are important. There have been setbacks and there will be setbacks. But if you are committed, we will reach a point that we will be all brothers and sisters."
Congressman Ellison said at the end of the conversation that he still has not made his mind over the Armenian Genocide Resolution, however he made it clear that he understands the importance of Turkey while elaborating its strategic significance. Also, with openly stating that America first should acknowledge its own dark pages in its history rather than lecturing others was also very forthcoming. I also tried to urge his staff to promote the Congressman's profile in the Arab and Muslim world, including Turkey. President Obama, without a doubt, hit many obstacles for his vision of a better relationship with the Muslim World and the initial expectations from his outreach policies have been crashed. In this perspective, Congressman Ellison looks like a figure who combines elements of tolerance in his family and in his views that can be beneficial to those who try to find common grounds between the two worlds. And Obama, whom the Congressman supported from early on, needs all the help he can get in tough times he is going through in the foreign relations, especially with the Muslim World.