U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said Thursday that anti-Muslim protesters do not reflect the beliefs of most Americans and called on political leaders to defend religious freedom.
Ellison spoke with MPR's Tom Crann several hours before a Florida pastor called off his plan to hold a Quran burning on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. Rev. Terry Jones said he gave up the plan in exchange for a deal to move a planned Islamic center and mosque away from New York's Ground Zero. The imam planning the center, however, quickly denied any such deal.
"I think that there's a small group of highly animated individuals who have convinced themselves that the problem is the Muslims, and they have whipped this thing up," Ellison said.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, defended the pastor's right to exercise free speech, but cautioned Muslims to exercise restraint in responding to anti-Islamic activists.
"The first thing that went through my mind is, 'Don't take the bait. Don't take the bait. Do not bite,'" he said. "This is a deliberate provocation."
The 5th District congressman said that he expects the debate over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan will play a role in the midterm elections. However, he said he thinks that voters are more concerned about the economy.
"I just offer a cautionary note to people who want to divide Americans along the lines of religion," he said. "This thing could turn around and bite you."
Ellison acknowledged a recent poll showing that a majority of Americans oppose building a mosque near Ground Zero, but he said political leaders should stand up to anti-Muslim activists, regardless of any political fallout.
"I think leaders should be thermostats and not thermometers," he said.
Ellison cited former president John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King as examples of Americans who worked to advance human rights, despite public opposition.
"Any leader can simply try to discern the public mood and then pander to it," he said. "Real leaders who are really trying to do good for their people will ask themselves, 'What are our highest and noblest ideals?' and try to persuade people to support them."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH REP. KEITH ELLISON
Tom Crann: The president this morning joined in the chorus of criticism against the Florida pastor, Terry Jones. The president says that burning a Quran on Sept. 11th would be a "recruiting bonanza" for al-Qaida and other extremist groups and would greatly endanger U.S. forces abroad. Do you agree?
Rep. Keith Ellison: Yes, I think the president's right. I thank the president and General Petraeus for speaking out on this issue. There's no doubt that these transnational terrorists argue that America's at war with Islam. That's what bin Laden says. That's what Anwar al-Awlaki says. And of course this is a false statement and completely untrue, but they try to exploit anything they can find.
And this particular incident, particularly if they can get some video of this Quran burning, will certainly strengthen the cause of these purveyors of hatred like Awlaki and bin Laden and some others as well.
Tom Crann: What first went through your mind when you heard that this pastor was going to do this in Florida, was going to burn a Quran, which is an especially offensive action for Muslims everywhere?
Rep. Ellison: I do believe it's an especially offensive act for any people of faith and maybe even non-theists, people who are respectful of other people's faith but may not be believers themselves because I believe that this thing, as tides turn, who will be the unpopular group du jour? Will it be Catholics? Will it be Jews? Will it be evangelical Christians?
And so it's important for people of faith and everybody to respect each other's traditions, but you asked what went through my mind. The first thing that went through my mind is, 'Don't take the bait. Don't take the bait. Do not bite.' This is a deliberate provocation.
He is trying to get a rise and he's hoping that perhaps some Muslims will break some windows or knock over some garbage cans, get a rowdy protest march going, maybe get a bunch of people arrested so that he can stand back and say, 'See, that's how they are.' And I thought to myself, 'Don't take it. Do not reward this provocative act with a negative response.' That's actually my first thought.
Crann: Is there a message there, in your statement you used that same phrase, 'Don't take the bait,' that you feel you have credibility with Muslims here in the U.S. and abroad, too, because you've been interviewed on this topic abroad? Do you feel you bring a special credibility when you say that, 'Don't take the bait,' that others might not?
Rep. Ellison: You know what, I hope I do. I don't know if I do, but I hope that I do, and I hope the religious leaders, parents, community leaders will go to the people they're influential with and say, 'Look, you know, the worst thing you can do is go into a highly negative inflammatory reactive phase in response to this man's provocative action.'
And I'm urging people to counsel calm and restraint. And it doesn't take many. I mean look, this guy is an obscure pastor with a tiny congregation, and the truth is if we look at some of these terrorists, look at Umar Mutallab, one guy -- he's Nigerian-born but was in Yemen, Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up Times Square. One person is Nidal Hasan, who killed his fellow soldiers
Of course, these guys, it doesn't take a lot to inject an amazing fear. And even the 9/11 bombers, there's only 19 of them, but look at the tremendous toll they have taken on the whole world, including our society. So it doesn't take a lot.
So I'm saying to responsible leaders in the Muslim community, 'Counsel calm, tell people this is provocation, ignore it, reach out to your fellow neighbors on an interfaith basis in America and abroad, remember the heroes of 9/11, those first responders who ran into those burning buildings and ran into the Pentagon and tried to save people. Remember those heroes, and then also remember and honor those victims as well.'
This is the best way to honor and remember 9/11, not by injecting divisive, inflammatory, provocative messages like a Quran burning.
Crann: As widely denounced as it has been, from the president, religious leaders, Secretary of State Clinton, the Vatican, there's really not much in this country that could be done to stop it, legally. And as an attorney yourself, I'm wondering, you said in the position of the Islamic center that constitutional rights always take precedence over people's sensitivities.
Rep. Ellison: Right.
Crann: You have to apply that, as unpleasant as that might be, to this case, as well?
Rep. Ellison: Yes, and I am absolutely an advocate of the First Amendment. I would defend the reverend's right to burn the Quran as a person who would maybe be hurt by it, I still would defend his right to do it.
It is our constitution, but here's the thing. The First Amendment protects the speech of the unpopular, and just because you're unpopular doesn't mean you're right. [Laughter] The Klan is unpopular. They're wrong. And this man is unpopular, and he's also wrong.
But of course, the civil rights workers were unpopular, although I believe they were right, but the First Amendment protected all of them. You know, the marketplace of ideas is well qualified to deal with this.
Yes, Rev. Jones is getting his fifteen minutes of fame, no doubt he will slip back into obscurity after he does his nasty behavior, his misbehavior, but the fact is that he has a right to do it and I would never violate that right, which I believe is essential.
And by the way, in Islam and in the Quran, which he's going to burn, it says there's no compulsion in religion, which means you cannot force Islam on anyone. And in the tradition of prophet Muhammad, there's many instances where he worked on an interfaith basis with Jews, with Christians, and with other people ... Not only as an American who has sworn an oath to uphold our constitution as a public official do I protect his right, as an American citizen I do, but then even the traditions of my faith say that he has a right to behave in this ugly behavior.
Crann: So we've have reaction to the planning for the Islamic center in lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center site, and now this. Why do you think these issues are surfacing now? Is this is a new wave of Islamophobia that we are seeing?
Rep. Ellison: I think that there's a small group of highly animated individuals who have convinced themselves that the problem is the Muslims. And they have whipped this thing up.
I don't think that this is a deeply rooted American phenomenon ... I'll say that most Americans would be perfectly happy to have a friend or a neighbor or maybe even a congressman, who's a Muslim. That's my lived experience. I mean my anecdote is that you know as a member of Congress, I've been well treated by my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans.
Now my Republican colleagues and I will go toe to toe over taxes and everything else, but I've never had one who's made what I regard as a hateful, odious statement. Now some have made some statements I think are ignorant, misplaced, insensitive, but never deliberately hateful and designed to injure. Now of course, they've made some dumb statements and I could elaborate, but never anything quite of this nature before. So I don't think it's deeply rooted, but I will say that there is sort of a quickening among a certain small sector.
Crann: How would you identify that sector?
Rep. Ellison: In New York, the mastermind is a woman named Pam Geller, an individual citizen who has a website in which she denies that Barack Obama, or raises doubts about his citizenship, in which she makes hateful bigoted statements about Islam.
And in this particular situation in Florida, this is one I'll call eccentric individual, Reverend Jones, who the world has come to know through his misbehavior ... This is not a large group of people. These are a small group of people...
And even in Pam Gellers' case, in lower Manhattan ... she can't make a frontal assault about what she really believes, the stuff she wrote on her website. She has to sort of couch her argument in terms of the 9/11 families, which is actually a deception because you have 9/11 families on both sides of this question. And so I think that you know it's just like the famous saying: Never doubt that a small group of highly motivated people can change the world. They can, but it's not always for a good reason or a good purpose.
Crann: How do you see this playing out politically in this midterm election? Is this in the background and rising to an issue that's going to be debated?
Rep. Ellison: I think that yes it will be and it is being an issue and will be debated, but I don't think that the purveyors of this ... anti-Islamic wave are going to benefit the way they think they will. I mean some of them tried to defeat President Obama by claiming that he was a Muslim. Of course, they were resoundingly defeated themselves.
When I ran, I had opponents who were doing things similar, and I won my election. Andre Carson won his election. He's a Muslim, so my point is that Americans are generally tolerant. Americans are generally tolerant, and so I don't think arguments about religious beliefs are going to cut much ice. I mean Mitt Romney, a leading Republican candidate, Mormon, nobody cares.
And so I don't think that the people who are trying to use this as a wedge issue are going to be successful. Of course, they seem to be pretty determined, and it keeps coming up, but I think that people are going to be thinking about jobs. They're going to be thinking about their own job. They're going to be thinking about their prospects for improving the economy. And that is what this election's going to be turned on.
And I just offer a cautionary note to people who want to divide Americans along the lines of religion. This thing could turn around and bite you, you know. I think Americans want to hear a message of unity, generosity of spirit, interfaith cooperation, and I think that most people, no matter how dearly they hold their own religious beliefs, don't like the idea of religious bigotry and hatred.
Crann: Just yesterday I saw poll numbers that show that a majority of Americans, when they're asked, object to the Islamic center and the location of it. So that would mean that a majority of Americans would disagree with your position, the president's position. Why do you think that is still, that this is an issue that divides Americans?
Rep. Ellison: I think it has something to do with the way perhaps the question is being posed in the absence of any context. If somebody says, 'Should there be a mosque on Ground Zero?' And people, I would expect that a majority of people would say perhaps no, but is it because they don't want anything on Ground Zero other than a memorial to the victims?
I think the question itself may have some inherent defect, but I think if you said, 'Look, do you think that an Islamic center should be within about two blocks of Ground Zero? And by the way, there's also several churches there. There's been a mosque four blocks away for years and years and years, and there happens to be an off-track betting parlor, and a couple of strip joints down there already. What do you think about that? And by the way, you can't even see Ground Zero from the location.' I think most Americans would answer that question differently ...They'd probably say, 'I don't really care.' They'd probably say, 'It's not a concern of mine.'
But then on the other hand ... let me assume your premise for a moment and say I think that leaders should be thermostats and not thermometers. And what I mean by that is any leader can simply try to discern the public mood and then pander to it and then real leaders who are really trying to do good for their people will ask themselves, 'What are our highest and noblest ideals?' and try to persuade people to support them and try to dissuade them from clinging to fear, prejudice, anxiety, and will try to persuade them to a better place...
Why do we love John F. Kennedy? Because John F. Kennedy told us, 'Ask not what your country's going to do for you, but what you can do for your country.' And most of us want to know what somebody's going to do for us first, right? Well, he asked us to do the opposite, to make a sacrifice for our nation. And this elevates people.
Why do we love Martin Luther King? You know because he said, 'We shall overcome,' that he has a dream where little black boys and little white boys and little white girls and little black girls are going to come together and be Americans together.
This is why we laud and love certain leaders and forget about others. And so I think even if the premise of your question is correct that most Americans don't approve of the Islamic center in lower Manhattan and then some other folks think that it's fine to do it, I still don't worry about that because I think that it is my job, and if I should lose an election over something like, over standing up for religious liberty, then that would be worth it to me.