The importance of Keith Ellison

At this time in history, the patriot who’s also a Muslim is our best defense against Islamic extremism and violence

Published April 30, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Keith Ellison        (AP/Alex Brandon)
Keith Ellison (AP/Alex Brandon)

Progressives loved seeing Rep. Keith Ellison smack down his GOP congressional colleague Peter King on "Meet the Press" Sunday, insisting that profiling Muslims in the wake of the Boston bombing is not only wrong but “ineffective law enforcement.” As Ellison warned: “Once you start saying, we’re going to dragnet or surveil a community, what you do is you ignore dangerous threats that are not in that community, and you go after people who don’t have anything to do with it.”

Of course right-wing bloggers hailed King as the winner in the debate – he wasn’t – and one sad sack even called Ellison “the jihadi Democrat.”

The fact is, we need more Keith Ellisons in Congress. Not just because he’s a great progressive voice, supporting the president but challenging him strongly on his questionable austerity politics, but also because he’s a patriotic American who’s also a Muslim. He's crucial right now.

On "Meet the Press" David Gregory tried to pigeonhole Ellison a little: “You’re a Muslim -- this concerns you on civil libertarian grounds and other areas.”

Ellison shot back: “I’m an American,” Ellison replied. “And I’m concerned about national safety — public safety — just like everyone is.”

Still, former IRA supporter Peter King continues with his jihad against American Muslims, which apparently began when some Muslims in his district made some questionable remarks after 9/11, suggesting there had to be another explanation for the World Trade Center attacks because the backlash would only hurt Muslims. They didn’t scream, “Death to America,” they just evinced skepticism that may have simply been born of alarm at what was coming for their community – and genuine disbelief that al-Qaida could pull off such a spectacular attack.

King fictionalized his clash with local Long Island Muslims in a novel, “Veil of Tears,” which features a wave of attacks on buildings and train tunnels killing more than 100 people, sponsored by terrorists with links to a North Shore Long Island Islamic center. King still acts as though his novel is real. “I guess you can say that the book I wrote, some of the things I worried about then, are happening now,” he told New York magazine in 2011. King’s fusion of fact and fiction makes him a little scary.

In fact, many terror experts will tell you that having mainstream political leaders like Ellison, and others at the local level, is our best bulwark against extremist violence. In Canada, right after the Boston bombing, authorities stopped a man planning to derail a Toronto train thanks to a tip from a local imam. “In our community we may look a little different, but in our hearts we love Canada,” a local leader told the Toronto Sun. “It's our country. It's our tribe. We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion."

One of the least covered angles I’ve seen in post-Boston coverage came from the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, who suggested Tamarlan Tsarnaev might have been detected and stopped earlier – not by the FBI or CIA, but by better relations between American political leaders and law enforcement officials and local Muslim communities.

Hirsh reported that Muslim community leaders in the U.S. complain the Obama administration hasn’t followed through on promises to work closely with local Islamic groups to share information and allay suspicion on both sides. An August 2011 White House report, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States," inspired little action. American Muslim leaders told Hirsh “such efforts have been meager at best, amounting to a shallow focus on counterterrorism and little more than the functional sharing of cell-phone contacts between local Muslim leaders and police.” Some contrast U.S. efforts with the U.K.’s “Prevent” program, established after the 2005 terror attacks to improve relationships and information sharing with Muslim communities. It involves social, health and employment agencies as well as (more controversially) M15 and Scotland Yard.

In the U.S. most efforts at “Muslim outreach” involve law enforcement agencies alone. Peter King’s good friend, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, came under attack last year after the Associated Press ran a series of stories about his aggressive, multibillion-dollar surveillance of local Muslim groups. He spied on Muslim students at 16 local college campuses, infiltrated a rafting trip and created a database of Muslim-owned business. In at least one case when Kelly claimed his efforts stopped a terror attack, even the FBI worried NYPD informants had entrapped the suspect. (Given that the FBI has been charged with entrapping Muslim plotters, that suggests a big problem.)

But when Kelly came in for criticism, Peter King came to his pal’s rescue, slamming "left-wing rumor-mongers" for vilifying his friend. They’ve formed a tag team, with King using Kelly’s information about allegedly recalcitrant Muslims who don’t cooperate with police to insist the only answer is tight surveillance, not community outreach. Of course King never names any names; he can't bust his law enforcement sources.

Instead of demonizing and marginalizing American Muslims (and Muslim immigrants) a smart counterterror program would work to understand local communities and cooperate with them to help them combat alienation, extremism and violence, especially among the young – and hopefully notify law enforcement when that fails. Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. -- and on the planet. It's idiocy to work to make enemies of them.

We need to make sure they feel every bit as American as Peter King's Irish-Catholic relatives, and mine, whose ancestors were likewise once vilified as belonging to a foreign religion that made them incapable of being loyal Americans. King has pointed to Irish-American gangs and insisted that law enforcement targeted the Irish; Keith Ellison shot back, "The FBI did not go after all ... Irish people. No one ever said let's surveil a whole ethnic community," Ellison said. "They went after people who were criminals and who were exhibiting criminal behavior."

Keith Ellison knows Irish-American history better than Peter King does. I'll admit that I'm always thrilled to see Ellison on television because he's such a smart, tough but reasonable and charming progressive leader. He speaks for me -- and yes, he's a Muslim. Leaders like Ellison are far more crucial to combating Islamic extremism and keeping us safe than Peter King, and we need more of them.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Boston Bombing Editor's Picks Keith Ellison Muslim Americans Muslim Profiling Muslims Peter King Ray Kelly