Can a Muslim-American save the Democratic Party?
WASHINGTON: After a devastating loss of the White House and the two chambers of Congress, US Democrats have turned their attention and hopes to the first Muslim ever to be elected, Congressman Keith Ellison, running for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and to be the party’s potential savior.
Ellison, the first Muslim to hold a seat in Congress in 2007 representing the 5th District of Minnesota, could make another historic landmark if his bid — announced yesterday — to chair the DNC scores majority early next year.
For those who know him, Ellison’s bid offers a clear contrast and rebuke to the rise of Islamophobia in the United States which surrounded the Donald Trump ascendancy to the presidency. It also talks directly to the progressive base of the party whose weak turnout last Tuesday might have handed the Republicans the ruling majority.
Meet Keith Ellison
In an insulated city like Washington, D.C., where very few predicted a Donald Trump presidency, Ellison was the exception. Back in July 2015, Ellison warned his fellow Democrats on ABC’s “This Week” of a potential Trump upset. His wild speculation then was met with pure laughter on national TV. Who is laughing now?
Ellison, 53 years old, who converted to Islam while in college at age 19 (in 1982), is described by those who know him as a “progressive” and a “unifier.”
Taif Jany, who worked for the Congressman’s office when he first moved to Washington, tells Arab News that Ellison’s win got him into politics.
“Promoting diversity, healing the divide, and fighting for economic justice” was one of the key lessons that Jany took away from his former mentor in 2007. This message, Jany is hoping, will resonate widely today, given the rise of Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant attacks.
A Sadat Chair poll conducted last November shows 61 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam. On the ground, this change in perceiving Islam has made American Muslims a more vulnerable target for hate crimes, more so in the last week. Three veiled Muslim students were harassed or attacked on university campuses in California and Michigan in the last week, and one of them was threatened to be “set on fire” if she didn’t remove her hijab. This year, hate crime numbers against Muslims continued to spike, reaching an average of 180 hate crimes between March 2015 and March 2016, according to a report by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
The derogatory attacks on Ellison himself have taken off on social media before he even announced his run. The far-right websites and cheerleaders such as Pamela Geller and CounterJihad.com, tried to attack him for taking the oath (of office) on a copy of the Qur’an, and accused him of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a charge that was long denied by the Congressman.
What it means for the Democrats
Beyond the attacks on Ellison, however, his bid could revitalize the Democratic Party reeling from Tuesday’s losses.
James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, and who has known Ellison for over 10 years and worked with him at the platform committee during the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia last July, says he “has the right vision and will be committed to the broad outreach necessary to include not only minorities, but also working-class whites who feel left out by the Democratic Party.”
Ellison’s resume as a native of Detroit, and solidly progressive on trade and economic issues, could help the Democrats rebuild bridges with the working class in the rustbelt states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) that Trump took from Clinton to win the White House.
Earning the support of key party leaders, among them Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, gives Ellison a boost to be a frontrunner for the position when the DNC officially votes next March. But it is mostly his blue collar message that could make a difference in this populist era of US politics.
He told ABC on Sunday, “I love the donors, and we thank them, but it has to be the guys in the barbershop, the lady at the diner, the folks who are worried about whether that plant is going to close, they’ve got to be our focus … that’s how we come back.”
By throwing his hat into the DNC ring, Ellison, a progressive Muslim Congressman, is reasserting the values of diversity and inclusiveness of US society at a time of great uncertainty and apprehension in American politics.