Muslim Congressman: Reach Out to Mosques

Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, the first Muslim member of Congress, said a lot of Americans don't know anything about Islam, and they should reach out to a mosque.
Nine years after the 9/11 attacks, dueling protests converged near Ground Zero in New York Saturday. Tensions flared over plans to build an Islamic center two blocks from the former World Trade Center site.

Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, the first Muslim member of Congress, said a lot of Americans don't know anything about Islam, and they should reach out to a mosque.

He told CBS' "Face the Nation" that Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

"The criminals and the murderers who did this thing to our nation, you know, they did associate themselves with my faith, Islam. That's unfortunate. Nothing they did is the Islam I know or the overwhelming majority of the Muslims I know. But they did make that connection, so a lot of Americans are just ... they don't know anything about Islam," Ellison said.

"I recommend that Americans go out and get with your churches and your synagogues, reach out to a mosque. Get to know people."

Tom Kean, former chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), agreed that Americans must work with Muslims to fight terrorism.

"The majority of Islam is all with us on this fight, helping us in this fight. And this is not a country about hate. Never has been. We've got to recognize that. We've got to frankly deal with the majority of Islam in good faith and show that we're willing to work with them as they're willing to work with us, to get rid of this bad element that did this terrible event on 9/11 and would like to hurt us again if they possibly could," Kean said.

On Saturday, after an official ceremony honoring the victims who died during the World Trade Center attacks, around 2,000 activists rallied about five blocks from the site to support the proposed Islamic community center. About 1,500 mosque opponents gathered nearby, chanting "USA, USA" and "No mosque here."

There were scattered scuffles in the streets, including one in which a man ripped up another's poster advocating freedom of religion and the second man struck back with the stick.

Host Bob Schieffer noted that America seemed to be turning more anti-Islam, with such antics as Gainesville, Fla. pastor Terry Jones threatening to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, stoking an international furor.

Schieffer asked Ellison where the hatred against his faith was coming from.

"One factor is technology. You know, anybody, even an obscure little-known pastor like Terry Jones, can do something incredibly inflammatory, get it on YouTube, and all of a sudden he's an international celebrity. That is one element," Ellison said.

"Then there's another one. I think there is anxiety and frustration in the country. There are some politicians who believe it's to their political advantage to identify scapegoats and try to turn Americans on Americans for their own political advantage by pandering to our worst instincts and fears."

Jones called off his plan to burn the Quran. He said his church's goal was "to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical" and that "we have definitely accomplished that mission."

Kean agreed that Jones was simply a fringe character that got blown out of proportions.

"That's not what this country is about. In fact, Osama bin Laden wants this. That's his strategy, is to get this war against Islam."

Kean and Lee Hamilton, former vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, released a report last week concluding that America has failed to anticipate the danger posed by home-grown terrorists. Schieffer said: "You went on to say in the report that terrorists have found our Achilles heel. Just how serious is this?"

"We think it's very serious," Kean replied. "We think it's a growing threat because the strategy has changed. It's much more difficult for al Qaeda to maybe have a great big attack like 9/11, so they're plotting smaller attacks. They're using non-traditional people to try to do them. So the best non-traditional people they can get, frankly, are American citizens - people with passports, people who can travel back and forth, people like the person who tried to blow up the bomb in Times Square.

"They're recruiting these people every day over the Internet. They're taking them to places, not necessarily in Afghanistan, but Somalia or Yemen, for training. They're trying to get them back into this country to do us harm."

Ellison said he agreed with Kean's assessment of the terrorism risk, but that "the real question is, what do we do with the information that he has developed?

"I think the wrong direction is to sort of target discreet and insular minority groups like Muslims and sort of focus on that community in a strict law enforcement sense. I think that could have a negative effect.

"I think the right thing to do is, one, reach out to mosques and other groups across the country to have open communication and trust, because these good loyal Americans will be among the first to say, 'You know what? We found somebody we believe is suspicious.'

"We need to make sure that we stand for civil liberties, so we can deprive people like Osama bin Laden of the claim that Muslims are poorly treated in America," Ellison said. "The United States is not at war with Islam. The United States is a fair country."