When Congressman Keith Ellison was elected to the US House in 1986 as the first Muslim to serve in Congress, he was immediately challenged by Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode, a Republican who represented a district that included Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello. Goode demanded to know whether Ellison would place his hand on a Koran when swearing his oath. It was an attempt, cheered on by many conservative commentators, to paint Ellison as"the other," as somehow un-American.
Ellison countered masterfully.
The new congressman arranged to borrow a Koran placed in the Library of Congress almost two centuries earlier.
Prior to becoming the property of the American people, the Koran had belonged to one Thomas Jefferson.
Ellison's deep and nuanced awareness of American history, and his regard for the best of the nation's ideals, has from the beginning of his congressional tenure served him and the country well—but never so well as in recent days.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have been at times embarrassingly cautious in the remarks regarding the Egyptian street protests that may yet topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—one of the more unsavory of the US government's many unsavory clients—while Vice President Biden has actually gone around claiming that Mubarak is not a dictator.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the partisan aisle have not been much better.
But Ellison—who because of his "first Muslim in Congress" status is a better-known figure on the international stage than in the US—has emerged as an unblinking champion of best of America's historic ideals: democracy, self-determination and freedom.
His messages in official statements, interviews and Twitter have been consistent and clear. The message is summed up by a tweet the congressman sent: "Ppl of Egypt DESERVE freedom; I stand w/ them."
After Mubarak's forces arrested Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning former head of the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency, was detained, Ellison urged Americans to tell President Obama to put more pressure on the Egyptian leader. "Let's do something," Ellison tweeted. “10k ltrs [letters] to WH urging pressure on Egyptian govt to release of M. El-Baradei, stop violence against protestors. C'mon!"
Ellison's message, for domestic and international consumption, boils down to an argument that the Mubarak government should accept calls for reform and democracy, and just as importantly that the United States government should signal its strong support for protests against authoritarian regimes—rather than shoring them up.
"The Middle East would be a much more powerful and dynamic place if there were less authoritarian regimes, and historically the U.S. has supported all of them,” argues Ellison. “We’re always on the side of 'stability' rather than justice. So let’s get on the right side this time.”
Ellison has a few key allies in the House. With two of the savviest and most responsible internationalists in the chamber—Washington Democrat Jim McDermott and Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern—he issued a statement declaring: "We are deeply concerned with the Egyptian government’s use of security forces and violence against demonstrators throughout Egypt. Egyptians are on the streets to address legitimate grievances. Such heavy-handed response will only exacerbate the frustration of these protestors, many of whom are young people who are fed up with the lack of political freedoms, as well as poverty and the lack of other opportunities. We call on the Government of Egypt to stop using violence against its own people; allow the free flow of information over the Internet, phone networks and in the media; immediately release Mohamed ElBaradei and all others wrongly detained; and allow reforms toward a more democratic election process."
In addition to calling on the Obama administration "to escalate its call for political and economic reforms in Egypt," Ellison and his colleagues bluntly declared that: "[The] U.S. Congress will carefully observe the situation in Egypt in the upcoming days, particularly in order to ensure that no U.S. assistance or equipment is used in the violent suppression of peaceful protests."
Thomas Jefferson—whose last written statement declared his solidarity with the peoples of other countries who would "burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves,
and to assume the blessings and security of self-government"—would be especially proud in this moment of Keith Ellison.