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12.15.09

A Muslim-Bashing Campaign for Congress

A Minnesota attorney is using virulent attacks on Islam in an attempt to unseat one of just two Muslims in Congress. Benjamin Sarlin talks to Rep. Keith Ellison and his challenger about a campaign that’s raising eyebrows.

As America’s first Muslim congressman, Rep. Keith Ellison has been a target for anti-Islamic sentiment from the moment he took the oath of office. Scratch that—from before he took his oath of office, when Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) criticized Ellison for planning to use a Koran for the ceremony and warned that “in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.”

Now Ellison is facing an anti-Islamic campaign from an independent challenger, criminal attorney Lynne Torgerson, who is bidding to unseat him in 2010. While Ellison, who sits in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, has little to fear politically from Torgerson, the challenger is raising eyebrows with her inflammatory language.

“Who is Keith Ellison? He is my opposing candidate for the Fifth Congressional District seat. Keith Ellison is a Muslim, a person who was raised Christian and converted to Islam.”

A large section of her Web site is devoted to outlining her views on Islam, including snippets like this one: “And, what do I know of Islam? Well, I know of 9/11. Nineteen (19) men from Saudi Arabia, all Muslim, hi-jacked planes, and flew into the two (2) World Trade Towers murdering thousands of people, and tried to fly into our Pentagon, and some believe they also tried to fly an airplane into our White House. From this, what I perceive is Islam conducting an act of war against my country. ”

Torgerson goes on to blame the “teachings of Islam” for the Fort Hood shooting, before asking: “Who is Keith Ellison? He is my opposing candidate for the Fifth Congressional District seat. Keith Ellison is a Muslim, a person who was raised Christian and converted to Islam.”

Asked about how he planned to respond to Torgerson’s campaign, Ellison told The Daily Beast that he would do his best to stress tolerance.

“I don’t believe in ignoring it, because I believe any time you have tough economic conditions and any time you have an event like 9/11, you have the possibility that people will not embrace the best within the community,” he said. “My campaign’s all about puling people toward our better selves, our nobler selves, the better part of our heritage. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin all stood for the principles of religious tolerance and inclusion.”

Besides, he added: “Quite frankly, I’ve had worse attacks than this.”

Nonetheless, the campaign has attracted the attention of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the country’s premier Muslim advocacy groups. A recent press release by the group’s Minnesota chapter mentioned Torgerson’s candidacy and called on Minnesota leaders to condemn her language. But the group’s national legislative director, Corey Saylor, told The Daily Beast that the group is cautious about giving Torgerson too much publicity in rebutting her statements.

“We’re paying attention, obviously,” Saylor said. “But our collective guess is Minnesotans will reject her message as being bigoted. So unless she starts showing some rise in the polls, we’re just going to occasionally address her in passing in a press release.”

According to Torgerson, however, CAIR is at the center of her candidacy. In an interview with The Daily Beast, she traced her decision to run to CAIR being named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a 2007 terrorism case against the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas Islamic group that was convicted of channeling money to Hamas. CAIR has denied any involvement or support, rhetorical or financial, for terrorism and has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Ellison, who has spoken at CAIR events, defended the group this year at a fundraiser for its local chapter, saying that if it were connected to terrorism, there would be arrests and prosecutions.

“I would never associate myself with anyone even soft on terrorism,” he told the Arizona Republic before the September speech. “We all want to fight terror. We all want to live in a safe community.”

Despite her Web site, Torgerson said her views on Islam are being misinterpreted as an attack on the religion.

“I don’t have a problem with Muslims, I have a problem with some of the behavior that’s coming out of there,” she said.

Back in Minnesota, Ellison’s religion has been a relatively minor issue, said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College.

“He’s deliberately avoided the media spotlight on his faith and focused on his district and his work,” Schier said, contrasting the congressman’s approach to that of fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who frequently invokes her Christian faith. “He had an opportunity to become a media star and decided to forgo that.”

Ellison, for his part, said he has been welcomed mostly with open arms, both in his district and in Congress. He said he was particularly moved when he first arrived in 2007, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took him aside to offer her support amid the headlines over his use of the Koran at his swearing-in ceremony.

“I’ve had some hate directed at me. I could show you some pretty significant folders full of that stuff,” he said. “But I’ve had much, much more friendship, much, much more appreciation, much, much more curiosity about what my religion is and what it’s about.”

Ellison added that he hoped Torgerson’s campaign would encourage religious groups to redouble their efforts at cooperation.

“This should provoke us to action. We shouldn’t just be disgusted, we should be looking for ways to build bridges between each other, between faiths,” he said. “This is a time for people to turn to each other, not on each other.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.