Keith Ellison Gives Barack Obama What For

Back during the 2006 campaign, when Keith Ellison was running to be the first Muslim elected to Congress, the righties here in Minnesota had a natural field day trying to portray him as an evil terrorist bent on bringing Shari'a to the masses, while simultaneously being a terrifying black nationalist. It got so ridiculous that by the time the campaign hit full speed, I had begun sardonically referring to Ellison as "Black Muslim Keith Ellison," because that was how the right invariably referred to him, as if the first two descriptors were part of his name.

Ellison, happily, won the race in Minnesota's fifth, where he should be able to safely win reelection in perpetuity. But to get there, he had to get past the smear that being a Muslim was, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Barack Obama has been accused of being a Muslim many times this election, and factually, it's wrong. He simply isn't. And given the climate of xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, it's understandable why politically, Obama wouldn't want to have to go through the crucible Ellison did.

And yet.

And yet, in the strenuous-yet-accurate denials of the Obama campaign and Obama supporters that Obama is a Muslim, there is a subtle message, one that is pushed every time someone responds with a, "Jeepers, no! Obama's a good Christian!" That message is simple: being Muslim is bad. Obama may not want to go through that crucible, but every Muslim in America has no choice if he or she wants to live in our society, and that crucible is made all the more difficult if even a man who in his childhood lived in a majority-Muslim country, who grew up hearing the call to prayer and knowing about the Quran, if even he will insinuate that Islam is a faith to be ashamed of.

It came to a head last week, when the Obama campaign removed two women wearing head scarves from the background of an Obama rally. And things escalated when Ellison confronted Obama about it at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus:

Ellison confronted Obama last Thursday during a closed-door meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Holding the numbers of the two women, Ellison told Obama the actions of his volunteers were wrong, saying his campaign needed to maintain an air of openness, not discrimination.

The conversation got so heated that CBC Chairwoman Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) banged her gavel to try and quiet Ellison. Obama though asked Kilpatrick to let Ellison speak.

After Ellison finished, Obama told the caucus that he regretted the incident, but said that he had not ordered the women to be removed. Following the meeting, Obama called the women to apologize.

And that's how it should be done. Ellison deserves a great deal of credit for standing up to Obama on this; Obama is the leader of the Democrats, the odds-on favorite to be the next president, a man who is at an apex of power. Ellison is a freshman rep from Minneapolis, and one of Obama's honorary state co-chairs. It would have been very easy for Ellison to hold his tongue, to ignore the slight, to choose to confront Obama quietly, or not at all.

But there would be no learning in that. And Obama needed to hear this, loud and clear. And to be fair to Obama, despite the heat of the debate, in the end he did hear the message, he did understand why the incident was a problem, and he apologized for it.

But would he have heard the message if Ellison hadn't been adamant about it? Would he have had the chance to understand, and apologize, if not for Ellison's temerity and willingness to stand up for himself, for his faith, and for two women he likely did not know? Probably not, at least not as quickly. And coming from a newspaper article instead of a fellow legislator? It might have been easier for his campaign to rationalize it, to say, "Well, really, this shows Barack isn't a Muslim" and move on.

Ellison, to his great credit, didn't hope Obama would see the light on his own, and didn't ignore the failure of Obama for political expedience. He challenged Obama, and he won.

There is a lesson to be drawn in this. Oh, not that Ellison is a skilled and fearless politician -- we've known that since he pulled off the most beautiful political jujitsu I've ever seen. No, the lesson is that all of us must be willing to speak up and to challenge, not just our enemies, but our friends and allies. Especially our friends and allies. Because while we will not always see the kind of result Ellison got, we will not see a result at all if we stay silent.

(Via Ta-Nehisi)

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