Keith Ellison became the first Muslim American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. One issue he has promoted strongly while in office has been tolerance about religious differences. He is concerned by a slight spike in anti-Islamic sentiment in recent weeks. But he stressed that he believes the United States is still welcoming to Muslims and people of diverse backgrounds.
Keith Ellison's election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006 captured international attention. He was sworn in on the Quran owned by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Democrat from Minnesota is one of two Muslim-Americans currently serving in Congress. He says his election proves that America is open to people of all faiths.
Concern over plans
But in recent weeks, Ellison has become concerned about the controversy over plans to build an Islamic center in New York, near the site of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks. Critics say the mosque would be insensitive to the families of those killed in the attacks.
Congressman Ellison spoke at a candlelight vigil in support of the Islamic prayer center, saying the whole world is watching.
He also praised President Obama's comment that Muslims have a right to practice their religion, and build places of worship on private property – including Lower Manhattan.
"He [Obama] made a great statement saying that, look, you know, if you have other religious institutions around Ground Zero, if you have other businesses, if you have other activity going on, you can't say everybody is welcome except Muslims," Congressman Ellison said. "You know, that would set up a two-tier system and that is not what America is about."
Appalled by al-Awlaki statements
Ellison told VOA the actions of a few suspected terrorists are causing problems for the millions of American Muslims who contribute to U.S. society. He especially singled out Anwar al-Awlaki, the Muslim cleric alleged to have played a key role in several major attacks against the United States, including the foiled Christmas Day airliner bombing.
"Anwar-al-Awlaki, who is American-born, living in Yemen somewhere, has gone on the Internet and said that he wants American Muslims to harm our own country," said Congressman Ellison. "You know, I am appalled by what he said and did. He lived under the shelter and under the umbrella of the Constitution of this country, was free to worship as he saw fit, was free to express himself, was free to do anything he wanted, except violate the law."
Ellison appealed to young Muslims worldwide to reject violence, and to not let themselves be provoked by hate-mongers of any religion.
On another recent issue – the tensions that arose last month when the pastor of a small Christian church in Florida threatened to burn Qurans then cancelled his plans – Ellison said promoting understanding between people of different religions is a top priority for him.
"I speak extensively about interfaith dialogue and I tell people, and one of the things after the threatened Quran burning, I said to people, look, you know, go meet some people of another faith, get together, break bread, talk, you know tell these folks in your church that they need to meet these Muslims, tell these people in your mosque they need to meet those Jews…," Congressman Ellison added.
Like all 435 House members, Ellison is up for re-election in November, and he says his chances for a third term look good. He says he plans to keep on promoting tolerance.