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Rep. Keith Ellison on Tea Party Anti-Muslim Bigotry, US-backed Assassinations in Yemen, and the Firing of Juan Williams

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A prominent leader of the Tea Party movement recently said he was working to unseat Minnesota Democrat Rep. Keith Ellison in part because he is a Muslim. Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party Nation, urged Minnesota voters to elect Ellison’s independent challenger, Lynn Torgerson, on Tuesday. “A majority of Tea Party members, I suspect, are not fans of Islam,” Phillips said. Rep. Ellison, the first Muslim congressman, responds to these comments and ongoing attacks against Muslim and Arab communities. [includes rush transcript]

Congressman Ellison is not the only Muslim member of Congress. André Carson, also a Muslim, was elected to Indiana’s 7th Congressional District in 2008.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The right-wing’s growing propensity to target Muslims is no laughing matter for America’s first Muslim lawmaker, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison. Last week, a prominent leader of the Tea Party movement said he was working to unseat Ellison, in part because he’s Muslim. Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party Nation, urged Minnesota voters to elect Ellison’s independent challenger, because, quote, “Ellison is one of the most radical members of congress. He has a ZERO rating from the American Conservative Union. He is the only Muslim member of congress,” unquote. Now, Congress member Ellison happens not to be the only Muslim member of Congress. André Carson, also a Muslim, was elected to Indiana’s 7th Congressional District in 2008.

Judson Phillips also wrote that Ellison, quote, “helped congress send millions of tax dollars to terrorists in Gaza.” After coming under criticism for the remark, Phillips was unrepentant. In a statement posted to his website, he said, quote, “I am not going to apologize because I’m bothered by a religion that says kill the infidel, especially when I am the infidel.” Phillips also admitted in a later interview with The Daily Caller that, quote, “A majority of tea party members, I suspect, are not fans of Islam.”

Well, we’re going to Congressman Keith Ellison right now. He’s joining us from Minneapolis, his district.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressman Ellison.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Good morning, Amy. How are you doing?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. I assume you weren’t at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday, but I wanted your comments on that little interaction, and then, most seriously, the kind of comments that are being made by this founder of the Tea Party Nation.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, I was there in spirit, although my body was here in Minneapolis working hard to get the vote out. I thought it was a great rally, and I’m very proud of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for their efforts, and everybody who attended.

But, you know, I’ve gotten sort of thick-skinned about this stuff, Amy. I mean, you know, it seems like almost every day something comes up that sort of edges the Muslim community to the edge, to the outside. And in my view, this is an unwelcome development, because, as was made very clear in the clip that you played, you know, the over — I mean, the overwhelming — nearly all Muslims in this country and in this world basically want what everybody else wants: peace, take care of their kids, decent education, a meal, you know, things like that. And so, because that’s what Americans want, there’s ample room for common cause and cooperation. But unfortunately, you know, you take a tiny minority of extremists and try to make them emblematic of 1.3 billion people, and you expand the number of people who you fear and don’t like and are potential enemies of yours, and you shrink the number of people who could be on your side.

I mean, one thing I’d like to say to this gentleman who’s leading this Tea Party effort is that there are Muslims walking shoulder to shoulder in Iraq. There are Muslims who are working — we’re working with in places like Jordan and in Afghanistan and Pakistan and all over this world — American Muslims. There are 6,000 of them in the United States armed forces and are serving their country, and many millions more who are seeing patients every day, representing people in court, looking after their kids right here in the good old USA. So, it’s too bad, but I have gotten to the point where — just doesn’t affect me emotionally anymore.

I was a little bit upset by Juan Williams’ comment, not because I think he is a bigot — I don’t think he is — but I was just disappointed because I thought if anyone would know better, certainly, you know, the producer and author of Eyes on the Prize would know better. But I just sort of now think that, you know, it would be great if maybe you or somebody else would interview Juan and say, “Look, let’s unpack your fear, unpack your worry, so that we can get down to some real humanity here.”

AMY GOODMAN: Did you think that NPR should have fired him?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: You know what? I have decided not to sort of weigh in on their personnel decisions. You know, if they would have kept him, would I have thought they made a mistake? No. That they fired him, did I think they made a mistake? No. It’s their prerogative. But I do think that Juan’s comment offers us an opportunity for a conversation. I would point out to Juan Williams and people who think like him that the people who boarded those planes on 9/11 did everything they could do to not look Muslim. They weren’t wearing Muslim garb, whatever that may happen to be in Juan Williams’ mind.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Juan Williams’ comment that he’s afraid when he sees people in Muslim garb on a plane.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Right. So the people — well, but the people in Muslim garb are probably the last people you need to worry about, you know, because the attackers were people who were not wearing Muslim garb and were trying to look as mainstream as they could. And so, that’s really not a rational thing. But that’s OK. Human beings are not all rational. Part of us are emotional, and that’s part of the human experience.

But I do hope that this spike in Islamophobic ideas can cause us to really kind of think about, you know, prejudice, acceptance, belonging, who’s in, who’s out, what is our national commitment to inclusion and generosity. You know, this is a country that underwent a civil war over who belonged and then went through momentous civil rights movement, again, over who belonged. Let’s pull on our experience and just rediscover the fact that we shouldn’t have any second-class citizens in America. And I think that if we don’t really sort of get together, you know, we run certain risks.

I’ll say this. I urge Muslim, Jewish, Christian congregations to get together to talk. I personally plan on writing a letter to Juan Williams and inviting him to have a conversation with me, because I don’t think he has bad intention. I personally believe that, you know, we need to really promote the interfaith dialogue.

And we also — Muslims need to remind our fellow Americans that, you know, when Osama bin Laden and people that want to kill — like, that want to kill somebody, usually it’s somebody who’s Muslim. That’s a fact. I mean, al-Shabab in Somalia kills a lot of Muslims. So, I mean, in Iraq, all you got to do is listen to the news every night. All those hundreds of people being killed are Muslim, by these terrorist people. So, I mean, it’s a — the fight against terrorism is also a fight that the Muslim community needs to be partnered with everybody else against these homicidal maniacs. So, I mean, this is the reality.

But it is — but being an American Muslim is like, on the one end, you’ve got, you know, this guy who’s head of the Tea Party and, you know, Terry Jones and Franklin Graham, and on the other side, we got Anwar Awlaki and we got all these extremist people who claim Islam. So, you know, most folks and American Muslims are in the middle trying to, you know, survive and get their kids to school on time. But that’s the reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of what’s happening in Yemen, Congressman Ellison, the White House is considering adding armed CIA drones to the arsenal against militants in Yemen, mirroring the agency’s Pakistan campaign, and allowing the US military Special Operations Command units to operate under the CIA would giving US greater leeway to strike at militants without even an explicit approval from the Yemeni government. What are your thoughts on this? All of this of course coming out with the two bombs that were found on planes headed to Chicago, it looked like.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: You know, I’m concerned about that policy. I am concerned about it because, you know, I have endeavored to try to study terrorist ideology, and these people don’t expect to defeat the United States with these bombs and stuff. What they want to do is provoke a reaction, which they then can use to whip up — use as a communications tool against the United States. So, I think that what we may do is go slower here, think through the implications of it, think through the legalities of it, and really try to come up with a real counterterrorism strategy designed to undermine these people. I mean, these terrorist groups, I mean, they’re literally hoping to agitate the United States or the larger military power to come back at them, and then, when civilians die, they say, “See what the US did? And we’re the ones to help you; the US is not.” So I think that it’s important to bear in mind what their strategic objectives are and not allow ourselves to be tricked into their game plan. I do — so I am concerned about it and really, really have reservations.

And then, on the other front, the whole idea of the drone program is something I think we need to have a real dialogue about, because talk about asymmetric warfare. I mean, this is the ultimate in being able to strike, but not be struck back against. And whenever that is the paradigm, you know, you kind of wonder whether or not your threshold for decision making gets lowered. I mean, for example, how many casualties are acceptable? How much evidence do we need before you do a targeted assassination? What is the due process implications? Are victims to be compensated? I mean, there is a whole range of important questions that I don’t think we’re answering, or even really asking. And so, I think that this raises some very critical issues that I’m very concerned with. I can tell you that the United States used to be a very popular country in Pakistan. Our popularity there has plummeted. I don’t think it’s a good idea to repeat that scenario in Yemen. And I do believe there’s got to be better ways to do this.

And let me also say this, Amy. You know, the fact is, is that, you know, we do need to strengthen diplomatic relations. I mean, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Yemen is a country where some transnational terrorists can sort of run around without a lot of scrutiny, because the Yemeni government is so weak. And so, you know, there are a lot of things that we should do before, you know, we kind of launch into a — we basically become a military presence in Yemen. And of course we would be one if we have military wherewithal — hardware, personnel — there and are engaged in fighting. Then we’re militarily in Yemen without the Congress ever saying a word about it. And the reason that Congress is not really focusing is because there are no body bags to worry about, nobody’s son or daughter is going to come back — and, of course, we don’t want that, but that then relieves us of the responsibility of really making the tough decisions. So, I don’t know. There’s a number of issues.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you opposed to the — so, are you opposed, Congressman Ellison, to the targeted assassination of the American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who’s believed to be in Yemen now?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Let me say this about that. Anwar al-Awlaki is an extremely problematic individual. I think he is criminally culpable for promoting terrorism, and I don’t mean just in some vague way. I mean in some fairly direct ways. I do think Anwar al-Awlaki needs to be held responsible for what he did. But I would rather see Anwar al-Awlaki sitting up in a courtroom and the evidence being marshalled against him and him getting a sentence that he deserves, like if he can be proved to be responsible for the things I think he’s responsible for, getting a life sentence or something like that. But I think that when you do a character — I mean, when you do this assassination, you essentially give him what he wants, which is martyrdom. I mean, Anwar al-Awlaki is not scared to get killed. You know, he is somebody who wants — who has delusional, fantastic, crazy dreams of being some kind of a martyr. And so, why reward him with that? The last thing Anwar al-Awlaki wants to be called is a common criminal, which is what I think he is. So I would rather us pursue a strategy of arresting him and putting him on trial and then — and not allowing him to claim that he’s some sort of a victim. That would be, I think, the preferred way to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Ellison, last question, and that is about the midterm elections tomorrow.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re considered to be very much in a safe seat, but it does look like, if the polls are right — and we don’t like to talk about polls very much; we like to talk about issues — that the House could go Republican.


AMY GOODMAN: And one of the issues that President Obama has had to deal with, as he goes out late in the game around the country, is not so much how they frame the issue, but what his policies have been. You opposed the surge in Afghanistan.


AMY GOODMAN: Many might say he became president because he was opposed to the war in Iraq. That was the difference between him and Hillary Clinton.


AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what got him the Democratic nomination. The people in this country who are so deeply disappointed by what they thought would be the change that he represented, what do you say about that and what it would mean for Congress to go Republican after tomorrow?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, let me say this. I want to say to all progressives that we really need to understand what we will be doing to the cause of peace, economic prosperity for working people, if we hand this thing back to the Republicans. You will see a flurry of subpoenas issuing out of a Darrell Issa-led Oversight Committee. You will see offers to try to repeal healthcare reform and Wall Street reform. You will see — and if they can’t repeal it, they will try to defund it, and they will shut the government down in the same style that Newt Gingrich did before. You will see a flurry of faux investigations. You thought Whitewater and Ken Lay — I mean, not Ken Lay, Ken Starr were bad? You’re about to see something worse than that, and you’re about to see these shock troops across the country, under the guise of some of these right-wing populist organizations known as the Tea Party, really get rambunctious. And so, in my opinion, it will be a disastrous thing.

My request for progressives, Amy, is to say, look, you know, what? You can’t make change as quickly as you want to; change is not an easy process. But you’ve got to stick, and you’ve got to stay. What if progressives in 1950 said, “You know what? This civil rights stuff is hard. We haven’t seen the progress we were looking for. And so, we’re just going to abandon the effort”? Please, don’t do that. Stick, stay, and remember that this movement is not about a personality or president or even election. It’s about restoring dignity to working and middle-class Americans, eliminating poverty, upholding civil and human rights, and inclusion for everybody. It’s about a politics of generosity. And you can’t necessarily do that in one election cycle, and it’s not easy. So stick and stay. Turn out and vote. Don’t hand this thing back to those guys. You will regret it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressman Keith Ellison, I thank you for being with us, joining us from Minneapolis, the first Muslim member of Congress.

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