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Muslim congressman candidacy for DNC chair challenges Trump vision of America

Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison is emerging as favourite to lead Democratic Party
Right-wing websites have slammed Ellison, calling him aggressive leftist "Muslim Brotherhood enabler" (AFP)

DEARBORN, United States - America’s first Muslim American congressman is looking to lead the Democratic party in its opposition to Donald Trump.

At a time when many Muslim Americans are worried about their place in US society, Congressman Keith Ellison has announced his bid for the chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

And he is emerging as a favourite for the position with major endorsements from party leaders.

Ellison, an African-American lawmaker who represents a district in the Midwestern state of Minnesota, was among the first (and few) Democrats in Congress to back Senator Bernie Sanders in his bid for the White House.

Now, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist senator is vocally supporting Ellison in his DNC campaign. Sanders started a petition to collect signatures supporting Ellison for the Democratic Party leadership.

"We need a Democratic National Committee led by a progressive who understands the dire need to listen to working families, not the political establishment or the billionaire class," Sanders said in a statement. "That is why I support Keith Ellison to be the next Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and why I hope you'll join me in advocating for him to lead the DNC."

In a statement announcing his candidacy, Ellison vowed to fight for the issues of everyday Americans, promising ongoing political engagement.

"It is not enough for Democrats to ask for voters' support every two years," he said. "We must be with them through every lost paycheck, every tuition hike, and every time they are the victim of a hate crime. When voters know what Democrats stand for, we can improve the lives of all Americans."

The Muslim faith

While Ellison never concealed his religion and took the oath of office on a copy of the Quran, throughout his political career he has tried to stay away from identity politics.

However, Ellison’s Muslim faith is inevitably factoring into the DNC candidacy.

Right-wing ideologues and anti-Muslim activists have denounced him. Alt-right website Breitbart described him as an aggressive leftist "Muslim Brotherhood enabler," and hardline Israeli backer Alan Dershowitz implied that Hamas would support him.

But Muslim Americans and progressives say Ellison's election would be a fitting response to Trump’s attitude toward Muslims.

Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said electing Ellison as DNC chair would reassure Muslim Americans.

"As an African American and a Muslim, he would definitely bring a different perspective to the DNC."

“It would signal to the Muslim community that the Democratic Party is very serious about the message of inclusion and pushing back against anti-Muslim rhetoric,” he told MEE.

"It is certainly a validation that American Muslims are contributing members of the American social fabric, that their work is being recognised at the national level and by the political parties."

McCaw dismissed right-wing notions that practising Muslims cannot uphold the US Constitution, saying there is no conflict in following the tenets of Islam and being a loyal citizen of the United States. He added that President John Kennedy faced similar accusations over his Catholic faith.

Andre Carson, the only other Muslim member of Congress, told the Daily Beast that choosing Ellison as DNC chair would be a "tremendous" message.

"He is the first Muslim elected to Congress in the history of our country, against someone who has talked about banning Muslims from our country, and who has made appeals and pandered to the Islamophobes in our society," Carson said, referring to Trump's Muslim ban proposal last year.

Ellison faces competition from former presidential candidate Howard Dean and outgoing labor secretary Tom Perez among others.

Hundreds of Democratic officials, including the chairs and vice-chairs of the party in individual states, will pick the next DNC leader. The election is expected to take place early next year.

Democrats criticise their party

The DNC has faced a wave of criticism for mishandling the elections, favouring Clinton in the primaries and failing to excite the liberal and progressive base.

Kevin Perkins, a senior adviser for Sanders' presidential campaign, said Ellison represents policies that the former presidential candidate is pushing for.

He said the congressman and the senator were “eye-to-eye” on the different issues facing the nation - income and wealth inequality, living wages, racial justice, affordable college, getting money out of politics.

Perkins said Sanders ran an issue-driven campaign, which is why Ellison supported him early on. He faulted Democrats for scarcely discussing subjects that matter to the American people during the general elections.

While only a handful of members of Congress backed Sanders during the Democratic primaries, several prominent congressional Democrats have already voiced support for Ellison’s bid. Those include outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid and popular progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“They got the message, the American people were looking for something different than what the Democratic Party was offering,” Perkins said of Democratic lawmakers. “Congressman Ellison represents a change in the DNC.”

He added that the DNC and Hillary Clinton ran a status quo campaign at a time when Americans were seeking change.

“[Sanders] represented a progressive move forward... that’s why he caught on fire in so many places,” Perkins continued. “You’re seeing the same kind of thing with Keith Ellison’s candidacy for the DNC chair.”

Mallak Beydoun, the chair of the Michigan Arab American Democratic Caucus, echoed Perkins's comments.

She said the surge of Sanders and eventual victory of Trump prove that Americans are unhappy with the establishment.

Ellison’s "unique background" would challenge Trump's vision of the US, she told MEE.

"He brings with him a new brand of politics," she said. "As an African American and a Muslim, he would definitely bring a different perspective to the DNC, and with some unlikely endorsements already stacked up in his favour, he is a serious contender."

Beydoun complained about Democrats’ shortcomings in communicating their "better ideas" to the American public, saying there was a lack of engagement by Democrats at the grassroots level during the elections.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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