Minnesotan Poised to Be Congress’ First Muslim

Times Staff Writer

The months after Sept. 11, 2001, were not easy ones for Muslims in Minnesota.

The state was thrust into the spotlight as the home of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person prosecuted in the U.S. for the attacks. Federal authorities closed down a Muslim-owned money transfer agency with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. And Minneapolis police fatally shot a mentally ill Muslim man from Somalia.

“The community was shell-shocked,” said Hussein Samatar, a businessman who moved to Minnesota from Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1994.

Yet five years later, Minnesota may elect the first Muslim member of Congress.


State Rep. Keith Ellison, a black attorney from Detroit who converted to Islam as a college student, is not a member of the burgeoning Somalian community in Minneapolis. But his journey to the brink of political history reflects how immigration is transforming politics even on the nation’s northern edge.

Ellison, 43, won the Democratic primary in the state’s 5th Congressional District last month in part by bringing new Muslim voters into a coalition that drew, in part, on Minneapolis’ black, Jewish, and gay and lesbian communities. He celebrated his primary victory at an East African restaurant in a Somalian neighborhood.

Favored to win in the heavily Democratic district, Ellison has courted Muslim support not just in Minnesota but nationwide. Last weekend, he flew to Florida for a fundraiser hosted by one of that state’s Muslim leaders.

His candidacy is a “huge victory for both Muslim Americans and America,” said Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce, a California-based coalition working to elect Muslims to public office. It “has eradicated two stereotypes: one against Muslims, that they cannot work and succeed in a democratic setup, and the other against the United States, that it is not a tolerant society.”

A generation ago, Minnesota would have been an improbable place for Ellison’s success.

Though the state has nurtured a progressive strain in its politics for generations, its diversity was usually defined in terms of Swedes, Norwegians and Finns.

Today, immigrants still make up a relatively small percentage of the state’s population. According to the latest census estimates, 6% of Minnesota residents are foreign-born, compared with 27% in California. (In Minneapolis, the proportion is 16% -- higher than the nation’s 12% but lower than Los Angeles’ 40%.)

But a steady stream of refugees -- first Hmong from Southeast Asia and, in the 1990s, Muslims from East Africa -- have transformed Minneapolis, as well as other parts of the state.


By some estimates, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is home to more than 50,000 immigrants from Africa, placing it among the top four centers of such immigrants in the U.S.

“This is a very different place than it was 30 years ago,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Ellison’s candidacy is a product of that change.

His Muslim faith attracted little attention when he won a seat in the state House of Representatives four years ago. But when Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo -- the son of Norwegian immigrants -- said in March that he would retire after 28 years in Congress, Ellison launched a campaign aimed squarely at mobilizing Muslim immigrants.


“We need the voice of all people,” Ellison said recently. “You never know where the good ideas are going to come from.”

His overtures generated interest in a Muslim community that had played little part in the state’s politics.

“We in general are not very excited about the political process, in part because of the countries we came from,” said Ali Jaafar, a Lebanese-born physicist who came to the U.S. as a student in the late 1960s and moved to Minnesota in the ‘90s.

Jaafar, who hosted a fundraiser for Ellison with Muslim leaders, said he was impressed that the candidate “talked about civil liberties ... about poverty and health insurance. These are issues that are important to us.”


Ellison, who blends earnestness with an unapologetic passion for a liberal platform, also spoke out often against the war in Iraq, a message that resonated with Muslim voters. He is calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In seeking to galvanize Muslim support, Ellison was a frequent visitor to the Karmel Square shopping mall, where Somalian vendors selling richly colored fabrics, sweet tea and other products from their homeland have created the economic heart of the city’s African immigrant community.

Muslim voters have responded to Ellison, businessman Samatar said. “I think people realized that if we are serious about participating in this Minnesota community, we had better participate in the political process.”

Ellison defeated six Democrats in the primary. But obstacles to his election in November might include a dispute he has with a woman who has said she had an extramarital relationship with him -- which he has denied. Both parties have filed legal papers in the matter.


Ellison’s Muslim identity also has generated controversy.

An article he wrote while a law student under the name Keith E. Hakim and his work helping organize the 1995 Million Man March -- an event conceived by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- sparked charges that he shared Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views.

After the primary, GOP opponent Alan Fine wasted little time assailing Ellison on this front. Fine called a news conference to say he was “personally offended as a Jew” by Ellison’s candidacy.

Ellison has denied he was a Nation of Islam member before becoming a mainstream Muslim. The attacks appear not to have seriously weakened his support; backers include several Jewish leaders.


“You know, everybody is something,” Ellison said as he campaigned in a working-class neighborhood recently and was asked about his faith by a voter. “You’re black, you’re white, you’re Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist.... Let’s talk about what we all share.”