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Muslims learning politics in 5th district race

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Khadra Warsame
Khadra Warsame volunteers for Keith Ellison, not only because Ellison is Muslim, but also because of his views on crime, immigration and health care.
MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg

On early afternoon at the height of Ramadan, Khadra Warsame has four hours to go before she can break her daily fast. She sits in her car listening to songs and contemplating the Quran and the lessons of Ramadan.

Warsame has chosen to practice her faith in the political world by volunteering for fellow Muslim Keith Ellison, the DFL endorsed candidate for Congress in the 5th District. She was delighted when she learned Ellison was running.

"I was so happy. He will be maybe doing change and help community. It doesn't matter for what color, what religion, for everybody the same. I wish he would be the best man. That's what I'm praying for," she says.

Keith Ellison at mosque groundbreaking
DFL Congressional candidate Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, at the groundbreaking of new mosque in Minneapolis in September.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Warsame is enthusiastic about Ellison, partly because he's a Muslim. But she also likes his stand on issues that touch her directly. He's for universal health care -- she's been getting calls from collectors for her health bills. Immigration -- she came here from Somalia in 1995. But safety is her top concern.

On Oct. 14, 2001, a month after 9/11, her father was standing on a Minneapolis sidewalk when he was attacked.

"He's waiting for a Minneapolis bus stop, and these guys, a white guy, attacked him with a baseball bat. And hit his face and head and broke his skeleton in back, and after that he was alive only 14 days. And that's what makes me feel sad and upset and I don't feel safe here anymore," she says.

Those who have worked to educate and organize Somalis like Warsame and other Muslims say that concern about safety is one reason it's taken years for them to take part in democracy.

"This is a history-making opportunity," says Abdisalam Adam, director of the Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

Adam has been instrumental in getting Somalis to engage in politics. He says Somalis and other Muslims were excited by the fact that they could help elect the first Muslim congressman U.S. history. Still, it took some convincing to encourage people who were relatively new to the country, and to democracy, to participate.

Many of the community members are skeptical, whether the way things are going we can make any difference. And we've been telling them that by complaining or by being afraid, nothing's going to change.

"Many of the community members are skeptical, whether the way things are going we can make any difference. And we've been telling them that by complaining or by being afraid, nothing's going to change. So with Keith coming in at this point it really helped a lot, and it really galvanized the community and really hope that we will build on this and not go back to their old ways," he says.

Ellison is quick to say he's not just a Muslim candidate. He's broadened his approach by reaching out to blacks as an African-American, and to unions, workers and the disadvantaged as a defense attorney, and to white Minnesotans with his homegrown, down-to-earth approach.

Ellison knits it all together pretty seamlessly, when he talks about welcoming new people into the community.

"If some folks move into the neighborhood who may be black or brown or may speak another language, you just go into your kitchen and you bake up some cookies. And you walk up to their front door and you smile and you say, 'Welcome to the neighborhood,' and you hand them the cookies. That's what you do," Ellison says.

Ellison is running against Republican Alan Fine and the Independence Party's Tammy Lee. Lee did not return telephone calls for this report.

Early in the campaign, Fine alleged Ellison was associated with controversial Muslim groups including the Nation of Islam. Ellison denied those connections, and has said he was wrong to dismiss the concerns raised about the National of Islam's anti-Semitism.

Fine has also been working to generate support within the Muslim and immigrant community.

"When I got up in front of the Somali community, I said, 'Hey, I'm Jewish and you're Muslim.'"

Republican Alan Fine
Alan Fine, the Republican candidate in the 5th Congressional District.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Fine says he's learned a lot by trying to understand hopes and concerns of Muslims and other newly arrived immigrants.

He's sat down at federal immigration offices and watched as new arrivals navigated the often arduous and tedious steps needed to stay in this country. He's met with Somali and other Muslim community leaders, and he's talked to many new immigrants about their hopes and concerns.

"I've learned that these communities are trying to work in the political process like they would in the countries they came from," Fine said.

Fine says that many Somalis and Muslims will express at least tacit support for any of the candidates running, so no matter who wins, they have an ally. For Fine, high-fives from staunch Ellison supporters are not a rare thing.

"They approach the politicians as if we have total control over the world, and they have no control over their own world. They don't fully comprehend the concept that they can vote us out of office. They think that we're the kings and they have to come to us and get us on their good side so that we'll take care of them, because that's what they did in their home countries," Fine says.

As more new immigrants become citizens, more of them are becoming part of the political machine in ways unimaginable in their home country.

In the September primary, thousands of Somalis and other new immigrants both voted and volunteered on a night normally dominated by hard-core party faithful. Ellison for Congress field manager Chris Montana says he was surprised by their eagerness.

"We had folks who were knocking on doors and then running to the next door, and then knocking on that door and running to the next one. We had people who were dialing as fast as they possibly could and hardly stopping to take a sip of water," he says.

Between now and the Nov. 7 election, all campaigns will be trying to convince voters, including Muslims, to turn out and vote. Regardless of who wins, Republican Alan Fine says politicians are playing an important role in helping newly arrived immigrants become active citizens.

"Most of these people are coming from a place where they suffered tremendously. And we need to support them and embrace them, and show them that they're an important part of this community," he says.

That's one thing that both Fine and Ellison happen to see eye to eye on.