Last Wednesday, September 28th, at the Cairo Physician's Syndicate I attended a talk by U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison during his first visit to Egypt. Congressman Ellison is an African American Democrat representing a diverse district in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For those here in Cairo his visit is not just a run of the mill Congressional visit, because Ellison is the first Muslim American elected to the United States Congress. Congressman Ellison was sworn into Congress with his right hand on a Koran that was owned by Thomas Jefferson. This did not stop him from being bitterly attacked by conservatives, including several in Congress.
Congressman Ellison was in town to speak on "Religion and Politics in the Civil Society: Lessons from the American Experience." Press interest in the speech was high, and multiple TV stations, including Al Jazeera, came to interview him. The crowd of 200 was mostly young, with many devout Muslims and women in hijabs.
I attended because I once testified before the Congressman at a Congressional hearing, and I like him. I was curious what he would say in Egypt, on the heels of their revolution. Egypt is wrestling with the writing of a new Constitution, trying to define the proper role of Islam in politics and the Constitution, and debating how to deal with the minority of 8 million Coptic Christians in Egypt.
I was proud of the Congressman from the beginning, as he stated his admiration for the Egyptian struggle for democracy. He stated his admiration for the people of Egypt, and their courage in the fight for freedom and democracy in the teeth of tear gas, beatings, shootings, the camels, and being driven over by trucks. But he said he could not truly feel the triumph of the revolution until he stood in Tahrir Square last night.
"Liberty and freedom do not know one country, and liberty and freedom are not confined to one people," said Congressman Ellison. "Even those of us who have some freedom have to be reminded of what we take for granted, and the best way to be reminded is to be with people who have just snatched freedom for themselves."
The Congressman was careful to emphasize that Egyptians have to choose how they want their democracy to look, but then shared his strong belief in the U.S. Constitution, with its first amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. He explained how this allows the 6 million Muslims in the U.S. to worship freely, and prevents elected officials from telling church leaders what to do or say.
He said that the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances allowed African Americans to win equality. The freedom of speech allows him to say in the New York Times that he agrees with President Obama on much, but disagrees with his promised veto of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations Security Council. The Congressman wished the Egyptian people the best in their struggle to make democracy and freedom real. Congressman Ellison was enthusiastically applauded ... and then the questions and fireworks began.
Several of the questioners all emotionally spoke to enthusiastic applause of the Jewish lobby and U.S. support for Israel, and challenged Ellison to do more, say more, and risk more for Palestinians. The last of these questions concluded with the statement, "Americans are the worst people in the world." And then Congressman Ellison made himself an American that I can be proud of. He said that it is wrong to talk about the "Jewish lobby" when you mean the pro-Israel lobby. He said there are many Christian supporters of Israel in the U.S. and many Jewish supporters of a Palestinian State.
Congressman Ellison listed his trips to Gaza, his support for freeing Palestinians held by Israel, and for the end to the blockade of Gaza. And then he said that "You may not like this, but yes, I have also called for the release of the Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza, and visited Sderot in Israel and declared that Palestinians should not be dropping missiles down on them." The Congressman continued passionately, "I represent a district that is 1.5% Muslim. When I campaigned I spoke of my Muslim values, like support for clean water and a living wage and a good education for children. These are the same values of my Christian and Jewish constituents. What is right for one group is right for all groups and I am not going to come here and say something different to you than what I would say anywhere else."
A portion of the room warmly applauded Congressman Ellison's response, and as a Roman Catholic and American, I was very proud of our American Congressman who is also a Muslim.
Joshua Hoyt has been a community organizer for the past 34 years, working largely in Chicago and often with Latino, Muslim, and other immigrant communities. He is travelling in Egypt to learn about the organizing of the "Egypt Spring." His reports and those of his colleagues can be read at www.icirr.org.