The 2016 presidential campaign has been called many things, but U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison – the first Muslim ever elected to Congress – says it may also prove to be the forum that caused many Americans to stop looking at all members of his faith as different and dangerous.
Ellison, a Minnesota congressman and frequent guest on the TV networks’ Sunday morning news shows, has been in Charlotte this week to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But in a Tuesday interview with the Observer, Ellison paused to ponder a pivotal moment of the campaign, one he said brought him to tears and one that he hopes will spell the beginning of the end of the demonizing of Muslim Americans.
The moment: Khizr Khan’s speech at last month’s Democratic National Convention, when the Pakistani-American father of a slain U.S. Army captain called out Donald Trump for his rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants. Khan held up his pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution during the speech and offered to lend it to the Republican presidential candidate.
Standing by Khan was his wife, Ghazala, quietly grieving as the country heard the story of their son, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq.
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“So often, people like Donald Trump have been trying to ‘otherize’ Muslims, and here you had a dad and a mom who are very tenderly talking about their son and their loss of him,” said Ellison. “What person in America cannot feel sympathy for a a family who has sent their son off bravely to defend this nation and lost him? It struck this resonant chord.”
Ellison was in the convention hall that night, tearing up as he thought of his own son, Elijah, a U.S. Army medic who joined up right out of high school and is now on active duty at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
“I was right there with him,” said Ellison, 53, who thinks many others were, too. “A lot of people of other faiths, white Christians, were like, ‘I recognize these people. Their name may be different from what I’m used to, but I know this guy. I understand this guy.’ ”
That connection, Ellison said, undermined the effort by some to make the Muslim community look like a post- 9/11 security problem instead of just neighbors.
As recently as 2014, the Pew Research Center found negative views of Muslims and Islam widespread among certain groups – Republicans, people over 65 and white evangelical Protestants.
Democrats’ views of Muslims were more positive, but even they rated Muslims lower than most other religious groups.
“We know there are certainly some Muslims that do really bad things, and the Muslim community is the first to oppose them,” the congressman said. “Every community has folks that do really bad things.”
Ellison grew up Roman Catholic and converted to Islam in 1982. During his swearing-in ceremony in 2007, he placed his hand on a two-volume Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
As he spoke with the Observer in a Charlotte restaurant, Ellison offered a suggestion to North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham, who has called Islam wicked and, like Trump, proposed barring Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
“I wish he would just sit down with people in the Muslim community and learn about us,” Ellison said about Graham, who heads the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “… What you’d find is that a lot of people in this community share your values of family, community, prayer, and you would do a lot of good by partnering rather than demonizing.”
Reached Tuesday for comment, Jason Simmons, state director of the Trump campaign in North Carolina, called Ellison’s comments “wholly off the mark.”
“When Mr. Trump was in Charlotte last Thursday he said clearly, ‘We are one country, one people, and we will have together one great future.’ Mr. Ellison’s time would be better spent calling for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of Hillary Clinton’s pay-to-play scheme with the Clinton Foundation and the State Department,” he wrote in an email. “Voters are tired of the same old Washington corruption and back room deals and will vote for change in November.”
‘A moral decision’
Trump, who is now trailing Clinton in North Carolina and most other battleground states, saw his poll numbers begin to drop just after the Democratic convention. That was also about the time his campaign began feeling the heat of a backlash against Trump’s dismissive comments about the Khans.
Trump tweeted that Khan had “viciously attacked” him. And many charged that Trump was resorting to religious stereotyping when he suggested in a TV interview that Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, did not speak because, as a Muslim woman, she had not been permitted to.
Ghazala Khan, writing later in the Washington Post, said she didn’t speak because she didn’t believe she could stay composed while discussing her son.
“All the world, all America felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother,” she wrote. “Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices. He doesn’t know what the word ‘sacrifice’ means.”
Even high-ranking Republicans – including House Speaker Paul Ryan – publicly criticized Trump’s comments.
At a Charlotte rally last week, Trump expressed “regret” for some of his comments during his presidential campaign, especially those that caused pain. He did not specify which comments he was referring to.
Trump has appeared to backtrack some in recent days on his previous call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Now the GOP presidential candidate says he wants a “proven” vetting process for refugees and would ban would-be immigrants from countries that have been “comprised by terrorism.”
During his interview with the Observer, Ellison charged that Trump’s new proposal was merely a “a head fake designed to confuse people about where he really is.”
He had other strong words for Trump – and for those Republicans still supporting him.
While some “fringe” parties in the past have nominated presidential candidates who engaged in racist rhetoric – Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968 – Ellison claimed Trump’s nomination by the Republican Party represented a first in the modern political era.
“This is the first time a major party has somebody openly appealing to bigotry and winning the support of not only the Ku Klux Klan but neo-Nazi groups,” Ellison said. “Whatever happened to the party of Lincoln?”