By Ken Kusmer
February 16, 2008
NDIANAPOLIS -- A convert to Islam stands an election victory away from becoming the second Muslim elected to Congress and a role model for a faith community seeking to make its mark in national politics.
Political newcomer Andre Carson is the Democratic nominee in a March 11 special election to succeed his late grandmother, Julia Carson, representing Indiana's 7th District. She died in December of lung cancer, and her grandson is seeking to fill out the rest of her sixth term, which expires at year's end.
If Andre Carson wins the Democratic-leaning Indianapolis district over a freshman Republican lawmaker and a longshot Libertarian candidate, he would join Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, as the only Muslims elected to Congress.
Mr. Carson, 33, said he doesn't believe his religious identity hurts him politically even while American Muslims struggle to gain acceptance. Polling last summer by the Pew Research Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 29 percent of Americans held unfavorable views of Muslim Americans, a higher percentage than shortly after September 11, 2001.
"I think it's more of an advantage," Mr. Carson said. "It's a platform to address ignorance. It's a platform to really show that this campaign is about inclusion of all races and religions."
However, Mr. Carson said his faith doesn't drive his stands on issues, other than instilling the values that have shaped his life and led him to public service. He said his decision-making is based on his constituents' needs.
"For me, the religion piece, it informs me. You need to respect people" regardless of their race, religion or gender, said Mr. Carson, who is black. "That is the foundation I go by."
Mr. Carson's grandmother raised him in a Baptist church and enrolled him at an inner-city Catholic school, where he entertained the idea of becoming a priest. As he grew older, he became interested in Islam, reading the poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
He converted to Islam more than a decade ago and began attending prayers at Nur-Allah Islamic Center, a predominantly African-American Sunni mosque.
"For me, what appealed to me about Islam was the universal aspect of Islam," he said. "All faiths teach universality. But with Islam, I saw it regularly in the [mosques], the praying, the different races."
After Julia Carson died Dec. 15, Louis Farrakhan delivered a eulogy at her funeral, leading some local political bloggers to question Andre Carson's ties to the controversial Nation of Islam leader.
He said the ties barely exist: His mosque is not affiliated with the Nation of Islam. He said he approves of some of the group's work, including fighting drug use in Indianapolis.
Unlike many U.S. Muslims, Mr. Carson said his faith rarely has become an issue for others in his civic life or law enforcement career that included a stint with an anti-terrorism unit of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. Carson and Mr. Ellison spoke by telephone recently, and the Minnesota congressman who took office 13 months ago said he advised Mr. Carson to emphasize broad concerns such as the economy, the war in Iraq and global warming.
"These things don't have any particular religion or color or race," Mr. Ellison said.
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said both men built their political base by gaining the confidence of Democratic leaders, not by running on their religion.
However, he said they need to demonstrate their faith to Muslim youth and show that civic engagement among Muslims is healthy.
"It counters any sense of isolation or alienation," Mr. Al-Marayati said.
Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Mr. Ellison's 2006 election marked a breakthrough for U.S. Muslims seeking national office.
"Post-9/11, there was a sense in the community that it would be hard for a Muslim to get elected," Mr. Saylor said.
He predicted immigrant Muslims will join black Americans like Mr. Ellison and Mr. Carson on the national political scene. Sons and daughters of Muslims who arrived in the United States from Asia and Africa are energized politically and working on campaigns, he said.
"We see people starting to build up the civic resume that will get them elected to public office," Mr. Saylor said. "Give them five or 10 years."
Even if Mr. Carson wins the special election next month and serves the remainder of his grandmother's term, he almost immediately will face a challenge to hold the seat. The May 6 Democratic primary for the seat's next full term has attracted several candidates.