Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Ugly voices tarnish debut of Congress' first Muslim

Swearing-in of Minnesota's Ellison is chance to win hearts and minds.

USA Today Editorial

Keith Ellison's election to the House, as the chamber's first Muslim, provides the United States with a grand opportunity to showcase its credentials as a nation of opportunity, equality and diversity.

What a great story to tell the Muslim world. Five years after 9/11, voters in America's heartland elected Ellison, an African-American who grew up in Detroit and converted to Islam in college, to one of the nation's highest offices. The 43-year-old Democrat took 56% of the vote in his Minneapolis-area district.

Ellison upped the chance to polish America's image for religious tolerance, as well, when he said he'd use Islam's holy book, the Quran, at his ceremonial swearing-in this week.

That's when the chance to shine was tarnished by a few ugly voices. The loudest belongs to Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., who used the occasion to take a crude swipe not only at Ellison and the Quran, but at all Muslims.

In a letter to a constituent that later leaked out publicly and reeks with bigotry, Goode railed that "if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the" Quran. Goode expressed "fear" that in the next century "we will have many more Muslims" in the USA.

Goode's pinched prescription? Essentially to shut the nation's doors: Stop illegal immigration, reduce legal immigration and end a program designed to draw people from countries with otherwise low U.S. immigration rates.

Other critics of Ellison's desire to carry the Quran, a holy book meaningful to him, ranted that the Bible and only the Bible is the basis of America's values.

They couldn't be more wrong about the essence of the nation's values. Nor could Goode about what the nation has to fear.

They're even wrong on their facts.

As Goode, who is starting his sixth term, surely knows, House members are officially sworn in without any religious book. They simply raise their hands in a mass ceremony in the chamber. In unofficial ceremonies later, they re-enact the oath, often with a Bible, for commemorative photos.

Some Jewish members and others have chosen holy books other than the Bible. Even presidents have strayed from using the Bible when taking the oath of office.

In 1825, John Quincy Adams reportedly used a law volume. News accounts say Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office, in 1901. It's Ellison's constitutional right to choose a book that's meaningful to him.

Tolerance and religious freedom are at America's heart. So is the nation's embrace of people from all countries and cultures.

Several million Muslims live in the USA. It is to the nation's credit that one of them will join Congress this week. And if Goode is worried about Muslim immigrants, he's about 260 years too late in Ellison's case. Ellison traces his ancestors to Louisiana in 1742.

Goode and other critics could learn something from the man whose actions they've vilified. Asked about the controversy on CNN last month, Ellison refused to be drawn into a battle over different holy texts.

"Let's focus on the text that binds us together," Ellison said. "That's the Constitution. That's a great document."


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