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First Muslim Member of U.S. Congress: Restrictions on Syrian Refugees Driven by Fear, Xenophobia

StoryNovember 25, 2015
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Rep. Keith Ellison

Democratic congressmember of Minnesota and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. He is the first Muslim member of Congress.

In our extended interview with Congressmember Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, he dismisses legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week to restrict Iraqi and Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States after the attacks in France. The Republican-backed measures would require top federal officials to sign off on every person from Iraq and Syria seeking refugee status. "We’ve had 750,000 refugees come into this country since the year 2001. None of them—not one—has been engaged in terrorism," Ellison says. "Why, then, are we going to revamp our whole refugee resettlement program ... simply because of intimidation by Daesh?"

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

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ellison, you’re the first Muslim congressmember in the U.S. House of Representatives.


AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the House passed legislation that was introduced by Republican lawmakers to, at the moment, stop Iraqi and Syrian refugees from resettling here in the United States.



REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, it was a piece of legislation motivated by fear, motivated by xenophobia, motivated by irrationality. Look, we’ve had 750,000 refugees come into this country since the year 2001. None of them—not one—has been engaged in terrorism at all. Some people will say, "Well, what about the Tsarnaev brothers?" Their parents were asylees, they were not. They got radicalized in another way. The refugees themselves have not posed any threat to this country. Why, then, are we going to revamp our whole refugee resettlement program, which is incredibly rigorous in terms of the vetting process, simply because of intimidation from Daesh? This is a bad thing to do. Daesh operates on the assumption that—

AMY GOODMAN: Daesh meaning?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Meaning what people sometimes refer to ISIS, the Islamic State. I maintain they’re neither Islamic nor a state, so I call them Daesh. But the point is that they operate under a philosophical underpinning that the West is at war with Islam, and Islam is at war with the West in a defensive posture. This is a completely false narrative. But when our country is saying, "We’ll take refugees, but only if they’re Christian. We don’t want any Iraqis and Syrians Aren’t those people Muslim, and couldn’t terrorists be amongst them?" what we’re doing is helping Daesh argue to people around the world that we are not there, that we don’t believe in the values we profess, and that they can make us change our system based on threats. And this is feeding their overall narrative.

Look, if Muslims—if Daesh is providing some sort of Islamic state, why are Muslims running from it? Oh, I don’t know. What about the rapes and the beheadings and everything else they do? These are totalitarians. They crave power, and that is what they crave. And, you know, sadly, the Iraq War, which was a fatal mistake of the Bush administration, unleashed some of these ugly forces that now are incredibly difficult to deal with.

What we should do is continue to live up to our values. We should maintain law and order. And what I mean by that is not just shifting the law to address people from a minority religion, but to just maintain our posture as a country that is a haven to refugees. We shouldn’t adjust that simply because of fear. And candidates like Donald Trump are not helping promote safety and national security when they say things like, "We should ID all the Muslims." When they say things like Muslims or Arab Americans were cheering 9/11—an absolute lie—and people like Ben Carson calling the refugees rabid dogs, these things are incredibly helpful to Daesh, and they are detrimental to refugees and Americans. So, I think we’ve got to all calm down. We’ve got to have some courage. We’ve got to face this threat in unity and based on values of inclusion, equality under the law and basic democracy. Democracy now, how about that?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressmember Keith Ellison, we thank you so much for being with us. Again, the first Muslim congressmember in the U.S. House of Representatives. And that does it for the show. Tomorrow we’ll be playing Juan González’s speech on the Puerto Rican debt crisis, and on Friday it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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