On January 4, 2000, when Representative-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN) put his hand on the Qur’an and took the oath of office, he made US history. As the first American Muslim elected to federal office, and the first African American elected to Congress from Minnesota, Ellison sends a clear message to the world about American diversity and our values of acceptance and inclusion that have made us strong.
Despite all that is significant about this event, Ellison’s decision to use the Qur’an at his swearing-in ceremony provoked criticism from a handful of near hysterical bigots who don’t know or value the lessons of American history. Representative Virgil Goode (R-VA), for example, warned of a future where “there will likely be many more Muslims elected to Congress and demanding use of Qur’an.” Radio talkshow host Dennis Prager, warned of “the Islamization of America” and said that in using the Qur’an, Ellison “undermines American civilization.” Prager, among others, also suggested that the Christian Bible ought to be required.
Let’s look at the facts:
Most members of Congress use no book at all when taking their oath. They simply stand by their desks, raise their right hand and are sworn-in. Only those members who choose to participate in a “photo-op” swearing-in ceremony at the Speaker’s office will bring a book. Some Christians will bring a family Bible. Some Jewish members may bring their sacred scriptures. Ellison is bringing his.
Most intriguing here, the Qur’an Ellison brought to his mock swearing-in was once the personal copy of none other than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. America’s founders had a more profound respect for religious diversity than many of their latter-day disciples. George Washington championed freedom of worship for “Mohametens, Jews, Christians of any sect, or Atheists”. Ben Franklin shared this belief, as well.
In using Jefferson’s Qur’an, Ellison smartly reminds all Americans of their founding fathers’ convictions and the values they embraced that shaped the new American republic.
It is disturbing to me that so many conservatives have forgotten these values, putting the unique character of America at risk. (It is also ironic that Rep. Goode represents the very district from which Jefferson hailed).
Also troubling to me is that Ellison’s critics are not only ignorant of our nation’s history, they also know nothing about the Qur’an. They’ve either never read it or have only read commentaries by those who have an axe to grind against all things Muslim. If they had taken the time to read this book they would have found, for example, that the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Old and New Testaments. (The Arabic word for God is Allah. Arab Christians, for example, use the same word for God!) And Allah, in the Qur’an, is just and forgiving, demanding and merciful. Above all, Allah is the creator and sustainer of the universe and humankind.
But for bigots, all this won’t matter. Blinded by their fear or hatred of Islam, their line of argumentation appears to be no more sophisticated than something like: “It’s not up to me to have read it; he shouldn’t be using it” or “I don’t have to read it; I’ve read about it” or “Don’t you know we are at war with them?”
My response to my fellow Americans, especially those who are confused or disturbed by this great event: Take a deep breath and think about the richness of American history and the deep symbolism of this moment. An African American, descended of slaves, was sworn into the 110th Congress using Thomas Jefferson’s own Qur’an. That, if anything, is a great American story. It deserves to be celebrated. It is now part of our nation’s history. In becoming the first, Ellison, like Jackie Robinson, has made us all richer and better. His election tells extremists (both at home and abroad) that America is bigger than they can imagine it to be.