“Muslim Candidate Plays Defense,” read the headline in the Washington Post. “Democrat Poised to Become First Muslim in Congress,” said the New York Times. “Minnesotan Poised to Be Congress’ First Muslim,” declared the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe agreed: “Muslim could be a 1st in Congress.”
Keith Ellison is set to make history on Tuesday, and the national press cannot get enough of the 43-year-old frontrunner from Minnesota’s overwhelmingly Democratic 5th District — a highly intriguing candidate who is a two-term state legislator, lawyer, father of four, and most importantly, it seems, a convert to Islam.
“I’m a Muslim. I’m proud to be a Muslim. But I’m not running as a Muslim candidate,” Ellison, a Detroit native, told the Post. “The people of the 5th Congressional District didn’t seem nearly as concerned about [my religion] as our friends in the press,” Ellison told NPR Sept. 13, just after he won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary with a convincing 41 percent of the vote in a district that encompasses north Minneapolis and nearby suburbs. On CNN’s The Situation Room that same day, Bill Schneider reported that “Ellison gave me every indication he intends to be a progressive voice. Not primarily a racial or a religious voice.” In the interview that followed, host Wolf Blitzer found it hard to believe that Ellison would be both the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African-American congressman from Minnesota, asking “What’s a bigger thrill for you in terms of that element of making history?” Replied Ellison: “You know, it’s all mixed up together. Wolf, I mean, again. I haven’t put the emphasis on my own personal identity.”
But though Ellison keeps making that clear — the subject of his groundbreaking status due to his religion, he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is “not that interesting” — that is just the story the national press keeps reporting. And reporting. And reporting.
“It’s almost this too-neat of a little box that he’s getting put in,” says Christopher Gilbert, a professor of political science at Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College, who draws a parallel to news coverage from the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when voters elected four new women senators, bringing their total to six. “It’s a bit of a bind. There’s an assumption that because they are a member of a historically underrepresented group that they stand for all the ideals of that group.”
The implication — that those senators then and Ellison now would represent women and Muslims, respectively, as “their core purpose of being in office” — illustrates a big difference from the assumptions made for traditional white male politicians, Gilbert says.
The Ellison coverage is a case of “priming of the news,” says Agha Saeed, chair of the American Muslim Taskforce, in which the mainstream media has reinserted his religion into an electoral process that should be secular, thus defining him by that issue.
“He is not wearing his religion on his sleeve, but the media has been putting it back on his sleeve,” Saeed says of Ellison, attributing this in part to the seeming appeal of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” framework and to “a post-9/11 obsession with Islam and Muslims.”
To be sure, Ellison’s campaign has tried to force journalists to drop the one-dimensional frame.
“The press latch on to whatever they feel is the newest, most different, in some cases quote-unquote most sensational part of a story, and, you know, it is of note that Representative Ellison would be the first Muslim congressman,” explains Bridget Cusick, Ellison’s spokeswoman. “What we have done to try to expand the story a bit is, when most of these people come into town, we say ‘Great, you can talk to Keith tonight if you come to his town hall forum on education,’ on health care, whatever.”
Nevertheless, Keith Ellison has been defined by the national press as the prospective first Muslim in Congress, period.