Muslim Congressmen: Election Year Politics Fuels Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

Reps. Ellison and Carson urge Muslims to get involved politically this year

Indiana Rep. Andre Carson greets a young constituent during during a gathering in Indianapolis in April. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

As the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump may have elevated anti-Muslim rhetoric to new prominence this year. But the two Muslim members of Congress want Americans to know that it’s not just Trump.

“Anti-Muslim hate spikes with the presidential cycle,” said Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, at an event at the National Press Club Tuesday.

The current political cycle attracts candidates who want to divide Americans on "any basis that they can in order to achieve electoral success," Ellison said. 

Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who trailed Trump for much of the presidential primary, wanted to "patrol and secure" Muslims neighborhoods.

“What is a Muslim community?” asked Indiana Democratic Rep. André Carson, the second Muslim member of Congress, in an interview in Indianapolis last month..

“If you’re going to patrol a Muslim community, you’re going to patrol other communities,” he said.

Carson had just spoken at the annual commemoration of the speech Robert Kennedy gave in 1968 the night Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot — a speech that’s credited with preventing riots in Indianapolis that night.

The Indiana Democrat is a rock star in his district. He’s constantly interrupted by constituents, many of them young people, wanting to take a selfie or get a bear hug.

Carson entered Congress in 2008, succeeding his grandmother, Julia Carson. He grew up in a Baptist family and was an altar boy in his Catholic school before converting to Islam later in life.

He brings a unique perspective to issues of law enforcement and profiling. He was arrested at a mosque when he was 17 and said he suffered from “triple the suspicion” as a black man, a Muslim and the “big guy.”

But Carson’s also been on the other side, working as a state excise officer and a liaison to Indiana’s homeland security agency. He’s currently the first and only Muslim on the Intelligence Committee.

He has both criticized the New York Police Department for spying on Muslims in New York, and reminded Americans that Muslims make up a thousand of those police officers.

“It’s disappointing to hear people who claim to love the United States of America talk about, and try to point fingers at, how Muslims are the root of all society’s ills,” Carson said at Tuesday's event. 

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, right, has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. The two are seen at roundtable discussion on religion in Washington in December. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, right, has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. The two are seen at roundtable discussion on religion in Washington in December. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hate crimes against Muslims tripled in 2015 according to a report from Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

Both Ellison and Carson said they receive Twitter threats almost daily. Carson has received dozens of death threats in his eight years in office, the most recent of which he blamed on politicians “fanning the flames of bigotry.”

“I’ve met Mr. Trump, I’ve read most of his books,” Carson said last month in his district. “His rhetoric and his language and his meta messaging is about exciting a particular part of our population, and unfortunately, that population has been disillusioned.”

“They’re upset with politics and they want to make America great again,” Carson said. “But it sounds like they want to make America hate again.”

Trump’s own rhetoric will go a long way toward mobilizing Muslims — in the same way decades of racist rhetoric mobilized the African-American community, said Ellison, who also converted to Islam as a young man.

And those Muslims can vote.

“Today, we don’t talk about the Muslim vote as we might talk about the women’s vote or the black vote,” Ellison said. “But we will be and we actually should be now,” he said. He pointed to significant Muslim voting blocs in states like Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia.

They won’t be voting for Trump, Ellison said.

“Muslims who support Trump is like chickens for Colonel Sanders,” Ellison said. “If you think that you’re going to be the chicken who doesn’t get fried up, well, I think you’d better guess again.”

Just as important as getting Muslims to vote is getting them to run for office, the Muslim members said Tuesday.

Carson doesn’t see Muslim political engagement as a partisan issue.

Plenty of Republicans represent districts with Muslim constituents, he said last month, and most of them see their Muslim constituents as Americans.

But the fact that so many Republicans supported halting the settlement of Syrian refugees suggests they’re scared for their own political futures, he said.

“They’re appealing to a constituency that has threatened to vote them out of office,” Carson said, nodding to anti-establishment waves that have knocked off GOP incumbents.

“During that time, there were many members of Congress who were bragging about not even having a passport. So are we surprised that folks are discriminating against immigrants when they brag about never even having left their state or country?” he asked.

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