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September 1st, 2011
10:24 AM ET

My Faith: Rep. Keith Ellison, from Catholic to Muslim

By Chris Welch, CNN

Minneapolis, Minnesota (CNN) -Prior to 2006, few people even knew that then-Minnesota state legislator Keith Ellison was a Muslim. Because of his English name, he said, no one thought to ask.

But five years ago, when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives - a race he would go on to win - word of his religious affiliation began to spread.

“When I started running for Congress it actually took me by surprise that so many people were fascinated with me being the first Muslim in Congress,” said Ellison, a Democrat now serving his third term in the House.

“But someone said to me, ‘Look Keith, think of a person of Japanese origin running for Congress six years after Pearl Harbor–this might be a news story.’”

Though Ellison's status as the first Muslim elected to Congress is widely known, fewer are aware that he was born into a Catholic family in Detroit and was brought up attending Catholic schools.

But he said he was never comfortable with that faith.

“I just felt it was ritual and dogma,” Ellison said. “Of course, that’s not the reality of Catholicism, but it’s the reality I lived. So I just kind of lost interest and stopped going to Mass unless I was required to.”

It wasn’t until he was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit when Ellison began, “looking for other things.”

He doesn’t have an elaborate explanation of what led him to convert to Islam in college, though he said he was “drawn to the multi-national congregation.”

“I would really like to hear somebody who is really articulate about the elements of their faith conversion. I'm not,” he said. "I investigated it, it worked for me, and it made me have a sense of inspiration and wonder, and I became a Muslim. It's been working for me ever since.”

Ellison's political opponents have made his faith an issue in his congressional campaigns.

“I would caution [opponents] that it doesn't work. People are not hateful like that," he said. "If you come up saying, ‘Vote for me because Ellison is a Muslim and I’m not,’ nine out of ten voters are going to see that as the silliness that it is.”

“It doesn't hurt my feelings at all," he said. "In fact I actually feel sorry for these people.”

And he said he has never had a second thought about converting.

“My faith and my identity as a Muslim - I never saw it as something that made my job harder," he said. "It’s just an aspect of who I am. It's the time that we live in. We have to respond to the realities of the world we’re in.”

But Ellison acknowledges that his faith has given him something of a national profile, not always in ways that are welcome.

In March, he testified in nationally televised congressional hearings, called by Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, to explore what King said was radicalization in American Muslim communities.

At the hearing, Ellison choked up as he described the sacrifices of Muslim Americans who tried to save others in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Without any of my choosing or desire I became somewhat of a symbolic figure," Ellison said. "And I urge anyone to avoid becoming a symbolic figure if you can. But I ended up in that position, so I just figured why not talk about it? Why not help try to bring people together with it?”

“Faith really should be a bridge, not a wall," Ellison said. "Because at the end of the day we should be focusing on what you believe, not what your religion is.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Islam

soundoff (1,073 Responses)
  1. Jimbo43

    seems like the main question would be "is it true" not whether or not "it works for me."

    October 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  2. Iqbal Khan

    Check this one...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXw3jJ3021o&NR=1&feature=fvwp

    October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  3. Chris

    Do u all want something really annoying to talk about watch this http://www.180.com.....the newest christian propaganda

    October 6, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  4. REhab is for quitters

    Why does it say that mO HA Mad took a bride and consumated it while the girl was YOUNG!!! I mean pedafile young. That creeps me out....who wants to follow a religon like that!

    October 2, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  5. md2205

    Comment regarding Leon ABP: Ellison joined a religion noted for its abuse of the sword to force other peoples to convert to its religion and for its terrible treatment of women and terrible status of women in its law, known to make it hard for women to have any recourse and to have any power in its society. Just as Leon says, the Seven Laws of Noah are for all mankind, and these are the laws: to believe in One G-d, not to blaspheme Him, not to murder, not to steal and kidnap, not to do adultery, not to eat the limb of a living animal (animal cruelty) and to set up effective courts of justice. These are not simple to do and require lots of study and effort. But when people take upon themselves to learn them and do them, we will see a beautiful society that G-d wants us to have, and it will hasten the coming of the Messiah, as G-d will see that we really want to improve our behavior.

    October 2, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  6. Iqdal Khan

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sGmsjq1UvU&feature=related

    October 1, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  7. Iqdal Khan

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TicB_x6V9o&feature=related

    October 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  8. Iqdal Khan

    Check this....http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TicB_x6V9o&feature=related

    October 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  9. Iqbal Khan

    http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/profile/Zakheim_Dov – CachedNov 28, 2007 – A vice president with the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, Dov Zakheim has spent more than two decades working in the defense ...

    Dov Zakheim

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Zakheim.html – CachedSimilar
    Dov S. Zakheim was sworn in as the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Defense on May 4, 2001. ...

    Dov Zakheim

    http://www.whale.to/b/zakheim_h.html – CachedAsk DOV ZAKHEIM!! Dov Zakheim's System Planning Corporation ñ remote airplane control technology. The SPC Corporation provided the flight termination system ...

    Dov S. Zakheim Bio

    dbb.defense.gov/bios/Dov_zakheim.html – CachedSimilar
    Dov S. Zakheim Dov S. Zakheim is Senior Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm, where he is a leader in the ...

    October 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  10. Iqbal Khan

    Robert Fisk: For 10 years, we've lied to ourselves to avoid asking the one real question
    Saturday, 3 September 2011

    http://ind.pn/nlHc0z

    October 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  11. See Novak

    And who can we thank for all this? Muhammed Ali (aka Cassius Clay), who made it "cool" for blacks to become Muslim, as well as for pro athletes to be egomaniiacs and a**holes.

    October 1, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  12. remember the uss liberty

    ISREAL DID 911.

    They did it and when the American people find out Isreal will dissapear off the map. The entire top brass of the military knows it now. They know if building 7 was wired for controlled demotion then they ALL were."
    -Dr. Alan Sabrosky, Former head of the US Army War College

    check out "911 missing links" on youtube.

    Muslims didn't do a damn thing

    September 29, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Living Epistle

      That is a blatant lie coming from your anti-Israel frame of mind, fueled from your demon possessed "prophet" Muhammad.

      September 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  13. The Jimster

    another one bites the dust...damn

    September 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  14. razzlefrog

    Yeah...he "investigated" it before converting...and Islam met the rigorous scientific, logical, non-internally-contradictory requirements piddly ol' Catholicism didn't. I'd love a run down of how he distinguished one as real over the other. That should be entertaining.

    September 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Sean

      Well put

      September 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  15. asdasdas

    I have been theoretically (yet not practically) muslim for years mr. ellison. it is not worth it. no religon is worth it. no one is better than the other one. they are all bad.

    September 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  16. News Runner

    EXCEPT THEY DID IT IN THE NAME OF ALAH!!!! come on Ihsan Khan.... if they would have done it in the name of Jesus Christ or something then we would look bad. even though it wasn't our fault, we wouldn't have gone and put a holy building right where the tragedy occured. They claimed their action on your religion. That is not fair to you, I know, or your fault, but it still gives your religion a bad image. Same as anyone who does something in the name of an organization or a company. and I don't know why people keep putting "Islam- a religion of humanity". The hadith teaches hate and hostility towards all non-muslims... not to mention what the Qur'an says.

    September 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • LeonABP

      Too bad he did not become a righteous gentile. He should have looked into this. Heck, I suggest all gentiles to do that. Just google any of the following

      Ask Noah
      N.O.A.H HomeSchool
      Noahide
      Noahide – The Ancient Path
      Noahide Nations
      Oklahoma B'nai Noach Society
      tidbitstorah blogspot

      Much can be learned and what a beautiful peaceful world we would have.

      September 19, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  17. Meat Puppet

    curious why did Ellison move to MN from Detroit? the Detroit area is a better place to be a Muslim
    while I am trying to appreciate and understand Ellison's politics – he seems to eager to play the race and anti-Muslim card when he does not get his way it appears that he like to intimidate folks – I'm black, I'm Muslim and you owe me !!
    maybe I am wrong – but perceptions become realities

    September 13, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  18. NM18

    http://www.islamicsolutions.com/september-11-2001-the-muslim-story-and-a-strategy-for-coping-part-one/

    September 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  19. News Runner

    I understand it wasn't Muslims who flew planes of people into the twin towers killing even more. But Why, why why, if the image of the people is hurt by a few, in most peoples' eyes, would you build a building representing the very religion those "extremist" came from. If christians went and killed even one muslim saint. I can promise you that we wouldn't go even suggesting putting up a cross there. Even though it would have been extremist, they still came from that people. It is just politically wrong, with all good intention and it being a "holy building" and all. When a people like americans are hurt emotionally and physically by extremist from your part of the world and beliefs, why do anything that would even remotely cause pain or contention among the people. If you really believe in being good to others and caring, then do it. Care what people feel and think when they are the ones that "COULD" feel anger towards Muslims and/or the extremist. I say again I know it wasn't the religions fault, but that doesn't mean that people should just accept this new building from that religion right at the site where the tragedy occurred. There are other places for that.

    September 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  20. Ihsan Khan

    Time to move on from hate and wars to building peace – Muslims the world over have nothing to do with such an act of hate and destruction that drove the 9/11 bombers.This attack has been used to falsely accuse our cherished religion of Islam – a religion of humanity. Terrorism is a crime and the perpetrators are not representatives of any faith, colour or race.

    September 10, 2011 at 4:46 am |
    • markjuliansmith

      Foundation Text=Ethics=Ideas=Motivation=Action For and Against Other.

      Now tell me at what point along this logic string does the connection between the Islamic Text and Terror break down?

      If you say it does break down point to the Foundation text which caused the Terror if it was not the construction of Other as evil in the Quran? Or the Action is not a translation of the Text how is that possible particularly given the Muslim underline Muslim terroists are actually pointing to the Islamic text and saying it is as they have done in imitation of Mohammed scince the seventh century – You are responsible – change the text.

      September 19, 2011 at 1:48 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.