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Somali Vote May See First Muslim In Congress
Minneapolis, MN. November 6, 2006 – An African-American is expected to win election on November 7 as the first Muslim member of the US Congress.
And if Keith Ellison, a 43-year-old criminal defense attorney, does secure a seat in the House of Representatives, his district’s many Somali immigrants will have proven to be a crucial factor.
A victory by Mr. Ellison could also help ensure that the Democratic Party recaptures control of the House. The end of 12 years of Republican Party rule might in turn lead Congress to focus more closely on Africa issues. The chairmanship of the chamber’s Africa subcommittee would shift, for example, to an African-American who has long urged stronger US efforts to promote Africa’s development.
Mr. Ellison, a convert to Islam, is running in a district in the north-central state of Minnesota that includes a large number of immigrants from Somalia. Political analysts say it was the votes of this community that propelled Mr. Ellison to victory in September in a seven-person race to become the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in this week’s general election.
But Somalis will account for only a small share of the votes cast in the district on November 7. And both the Republican and independent candidates in the race have been trying to appeal to non-Muslim voters by emphasizing Mr. Ellison’s past association with Nation of Islam, a militant African-American group.
"His most energetic and active volunteers are Muslim, to a large extent," said University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs. "But most of his voters are not going to be Muslim. Ellison realizes that, and he's doing everything he can to widen his appeal to non-Muslim voters."
At the same time, Muslims throughout the US are looking to Mr. Ellison as a figure who could help dispel anti-Muslim sentiments that intensified in the aftermath of September 11.
Having a Muslim in Congress would provide "a stage" to promote a more positive view of Islam, said Barlin Abdi, a Somali in the district that Mr. Ellison hopes to represent in Washington.
But many Muslims would likely disagree with Mr. Ellison’s typically Democratic stand in favor of gay rights and abortion. An equally large number of US Muslims, however, would probably welcome Mr. Ellison’s call for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq.
His election would, in any event, prove historic. Although the Kenyan family of Barack Obama consists partly of Muslims, the US senator is himself a Christian.
Mr. Ellison was also raised as a Christian, converting to Islam while a university student. He refuses to discuss his reasons publicly.
While a law student, Mr. Ellison wrote newspaper columns under the pen name Keith E. Hakim. In some of those writings, Mr. Ellison defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Jewish remarks.
Mr. Ellison has apologized for statements some regard as offensive. He also says his involvement with the Nation of Islam was limited to an 18-month period in the mid-1990s when he helped organize a protest in Washington known as the Million Man March.
And Mr. Ellison recently sent a letter to a local Jewish group criticizing Mr. Farrakhan and his supporters as anti-Jewish.
The district where Mr. Ellison is campaigning has sent Democrats to Washington for the past 44 years without interruption. His Republican and independent opponents, however, may be chipping away at Mr. Ellison’s base with their attacks on his links to the Nation of Islam.
But prominent non-Muslim Democrats in the district have been rallying behind Mr. Ellison, who would also be the first black member of Congress from Minnesota. Some Democrats have also denounced comments made by the Republican candidate, Alan Fine, who is Jewish.
Source: The East African