Congressman Keith Ellison and the Qur’an

Sheila Musaji

Posted Dec 11, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Congressman Keith Ellison and the Qur’an

by Sheila Musaji

Keith Ellison is the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.

According to USA Today Newly elected congressman Keith Ellison is facing some Islamophobia for his decision to use the Qur’an during the ceremonial photograph session after his swearing in ceremony.  On the conservative website, Dennis Prager blasted Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison’s decision to take the oath of office Jan. 4 with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an instead of the more customary Bible.

“He should not be allowed to do so,” Prager wrote, “not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture.”  He said Ellison, a convert from Catholicism, should swear on a Christian Bible — which “America holds as its holiest book. … If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”  “Prager, who is Jewish, wrote that no Mormon elected official has “demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.” But Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, carried a volume of Mormon scriptures that included the Bible and the Book of Mormon at his swearing-in ceremony in 1997.”

The Jewish Journal reported on Prager’s comment:  “If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” Prager wrote, adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”  ...  “However, members of Congress are sworn in together in a simple ceremony that only requires that the representatives raise their right hand. Individuals may carry a sacred text, but its presence isn’t required. Representatives can bring in whatever they want, said Fred Beuttler, House of Representatives deputy historian.” 

The American Jewish Committee expressed dismay at Prager’s statements.  And, the ADL issued a statement about Prager’s statements:

Dennis Prager’s argument that Representative-Elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, should not be permitted to take his oath of office on a Koran is, intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American.

Prager is flat-out wrong when he asserts that Representative Ellison’s use of a Koran would be “damaging to the fabric of American civilization.”  To the contrary, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that, “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold public office in America.  Members of Congress, like all Americans, should be free to observe their own religious practices without government interference or coercion. 

Prager’s patriotic prattling is misinformed on the facts, too.  No Member of Congress is officially sworn in with a Bible.  Under House rules, the official swearing-in ceremony is done in the House chambers, with the Speaker of the House administering the oath of office en masse.  No Bibles or other holy books are used at all.  Members may, if they choose, also have a private ceremony with family and friends.  At these unofficial ceremonies, Members frequently solemnize the event by taking an oath while holding a personal family Bible.

Prager ridiculously asserts that permitting Rep. Ellison to take the oath of office would “be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”  What he fails to understand is that what truly unifies all Americans is a value system built on religious freedom and pluralism, not dogmatism and coercion.

Prager presents intolerant, ugly views.  His comparison of Ellison’s desire to “choose his favorite book” to that of the right of a racist elected to public office to use Hitler’s Mein Kampf is outrageous.  If Prager were merely a blogger and radio talk-show host trying to be relevant and provocative, these views might not merit a response.  But as a newly-appointed member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Prager and his views must be held to a higher standard.

Prager was not alone in expressing bigotry that shows ignorance of the Constitution.

The infamous former Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore said“Our Constitution states, “Each House [of Congress] shall be the judge ... of the qualifications of its own members.” Enough evidence exists for Congress to question Ellison’s qualifications to be a member of Congress as well as his commitment to the Constitution in view of his apparent determination to embrace the Quran and an Islamic philosophy directly contrary to the principles of the Constitution. But common sense alone dictates that in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine. In 1943, we would never have allowed a member of Congress to take their oath on “Mein Kampf,” or someone in the 1950s to swear allegiance to the “Communist Manifesto.” Congress has the authority and should act to prohibit Ellison from taking the congressional oath today!” 

Republican Rep. Virgil Goode’s sent out a letter to constituents in which he said:

” “When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Quran in any way.

“The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran.

“We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country.

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.”

He added, “The Ten Commandments and ‘In God We Trust’ are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Quran.

“My response was clear, ‘As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, the Quran is not going to be on the wall of my office.’”

Robert Spencer wrote In short, to swear on the Bible is to affirm, among other things, that one is part of a tradition, and to swear on the Qur’an does not amount to an affirmation of the same tradition, no matter how much Glenn Beck or Ed Koch or anyone wishes it does or assumes it does. Islamic teachers daily use the Qur’an to establish principles that differ radically from those of Judeo-Christian tradition. These questions need to be discussed in a forthright and honest manner by Ellison and by the mainstream media, instead of being swept under the rug or condemned as bigotry.”

As a point of fact, four U.S. Presidents were sworn in without using a Bible.  M. Osman Siddique, the first Muslim ambassador in U.S. history, was sworn in on a Koran in 1999, when he became U.S. Ambassador to the Fiji Islands.  Linda Lingle took the oath of office as Gov. of Hawaii on a Torah in 2002.  Madeleine Kunin placed her hand on Jewish prayer books when she was sworn in as the first female governor of Vermont in 1985.  Other Jewish office holders used the Tanakh or prayer books  In the Federal Congress Debbie Wasserman Schultz also used a Tanakh, as did Ed Koch (D-NY) who served in the US House from 1969 to 1977.  Likewise, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) who is now entering his seventeenth term of office, stated “he had never used a [Christian] Bible at his own swearing-in ceremonies.  Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Arthur Goldberg used the Tanakh. 

Eugene Volokh responded to Rep. Goode’s statement and said in part:

“This argument both mistakes the purpose of the oath, and misunderstands the Constitution. In fact, it calls for the violation of some of the Constitution’s multiculturalist provisions.    To begin with, the oath is a religious ritual, both in its origins and its use by the devout today. The oath invokes God as a witness to one’s promise, as a means of making the promise more weighty on the oathtaker’s conscience. ...  Yet this would literally violate the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.      What’s more, the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives ... [and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ....”  The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the swearing of oaths.  ...  So the Constitution thus already expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work. Atheists and agnostics are thus protected, as well as members of certain Christian groups. Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected from having to perform a religious ritual that expressly invokes a religion in which they do not believe? Under the Constitution, all of them “are incapable of taking an oath on that book,” whether because they are Quakers, atheists, agnostics, or Muslims. Yet all remain entirely free to “serve in Congress.”

Rabbi Barry Leff noted that: “The other bloggers miss the religious angle.  If I were to be elected to office, there is no way I would ever take an oath of office on a Christian Bible.  That would be a mockery of my faith, and disrespectful to the Christians.  When we take an oath with our hand on a sacred book, we are swearing by that which is most sacred to us.  Since I don’t believe in the New Testament, what kind of oath would it be for me to swear by it?  It would be utterly meaningless.  On the other hand, if I were to swear on a Hebrew Bible, on the Torah, THAT would be a real oath.    In fact, not only would I “allow” Mr. Ellison to take his oath on the Koran, I would insist on it.  If he were to take his oath on a Christian Bible, I might be afraid he wasn’t sincere, it wasn’t really an oath.  But if he were to swear by the Koran—well then I would know that it was a real oath to him.”

James Zogby has pointed out“My response to my fellow Americans, especially those who are confused or disturbed by this great event: take a deep breath and think about the richness of American history and the deep symbolism of this moment. An African American, descended of slaves, was sworn into the 110th Congress using Thomas Jefferson’s own Qur’an. That, if anything, is a great American story. It deserves to be celebrated. It is now part of our nation’s history.    In becoming the first, Ellison has made us all richer and better. His election tells extremists (both at home and abroad) that America is bigger than they can imagine it to be.”

All of these folks are not only ignorant of the Constitution, but also of the mechanics of the swearing in ceremony for members of Congress.  It is remarkable that they are unaware of the fact that the public swearing-in ceremony consists of Representatives raising their right hands and repeating the oath of office. This ceremony is led by the Speaker of the House, and no religious texts are used.  Some members of Congress later hold separate private ceremonies for photo ops.

This entire controversy is a non-issue for another reason.  Article 6 of the Constitution states The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

The current oath of office for Congress and the Senate is the following I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

It is remarkable that those making these comments about Rep. Ellison and the Qur’an were unaware of the fact that the public swearing-in ceremony consists of Representatives raising their right hands and repeating the oath of office. This ceremony is led by the Speaker of the House, and no religious texts are used. Some members of Congress later hold separate private ceremonies for photo ops.   It was at this completely optional photo op (basically a re-enactment) that Ellison used Jefferson’s Qur’an which was loaned to Ellison by “the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress”.

KEITH ELLISON BIO:  Keith Maurice Ellison (born August 4, 1963) is an American lawyer and politician who became the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress when he won the vacant seat for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives, one of eight congressional districts in Minnesota. He is also the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota. Ellison is also active on a national level in advocacy for Muslims in the United States.

With his victory to the United States House of Representatives Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the Federal Government and the highest Muslim elected official in the United States. Ellison joins State Del. Saqib Ali (D-MD), State Senator Larry Shaw (D-North Carolina), and State Rep. Saghir “Saggy” Tahir (R-New Hampshire) as the only elected Muslim officials in the United States of America as of 2006. Ellison’s election has been seen as inspirational to American Muslims, encouraging civic empowerment through participation in the political process.[39][40] Ellison generally downplayed his religious affiliation during the general election, but since winning the congressional race he has become active in advocacy for Islamic causes on a national level.  Wikipedia

Rep. Ellison has been selected for inclusion in the 2009 edition of the Muslim 500:  The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims. 


Rep. Ellison’s official website

AAI Condemns Prejudiced Attacks on Ellison, Asks Congressional Leaders to Come to His Defense
A Muslim Response to Dennis Prager’s ‘Five Questions’, Hussam Ayloush
ADL statement on Prager’s attack on Rep. Ellison
ADL 2011 statement Anti-Muslim sentiment significant
Answers to Five ‘Repulsive’ Questions of Dennis Prager, Dr. Maher Hathout
Backgrounder on Prager
Gary Boisclair vs Keith Ellison, Another Congressional Campaign Based on Hatred of Muslims, Sheila Musaji
CAIR calls on President Bush to rescind the appointment of radio talk show host Dennis Prager to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council 
Ellison and the Qur’an: “a great American story”, James J. Zogby
Keith Ellison: First Muslim in Congress Makes His Mark, Ali Eteraz
Rep. Keith Ellison Challenges Rep. Michelle Bachmann: Put Up or Shut Up, James Zogby
Fear and Bigotry in Congress
Global Marshall Plan resolution introduced in Congress-H.Res. 1078 by Ellison, Cleaver & Moran
How Thomas Jefferson read the Quran, Kevin J. Hayes 
I swear…but by what book?, Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff 
In Letter, GOP Rep Fears Influx of Muslims, Paul Kiel
Islamophobia from Jefferson to Ellison, Abdul Malik Mujahid
Muslims and the Five Questions of Dennis Prager, Juan Cole
Oh Say, Can You Swear on a Koran?,  Eugene Volokh 
Dennis Prager vs. the First Amendment, Sheila Musaji
Dennis Prager Has A Funny Definition Of Freedom
Prager’s anti-Islamic bigotry is not newsworthy
President Bush Asked to Rescind Appointment of Dennis Prager
Presidential appointee says Quran oath ‘undermines American civilization’
Lynn Torgerson vs Keith Ellison: A Congressional Campaign Based on Religious Hatred, Sheila Musaji
U.S. Holocaust Museum urged to drop Islam basher, CAIR
Wikipedia has an extensive list of comments on all sides of this issue’an_oath_controversy_of_the_110th_United_States_Congress

First posted 1/07 Note:  the photo from the photo op above is from Wikipedia