Donald Trump’s Words Have Added Sting for 2 Muslims in Congress
Since the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris, both congressmen have been pressed to come to terms with being a Muslim and an American politician in the age of the Islamic State.
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill have joined them in speaking out against Mr. Trump. On Tuesday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan reproached Mr. Trump, who leads most polls of the Republican presidential field. “Not only are there many Muslims serving in our armed forces dying for this country,” Mr. Ryan said, “there are Muslims serving right here in the House, working every day to uphold and defend the Constitution.”
Mr. Carson, who won the seat held by his grandmother, Representative Julia Carson, after she died, grew up in a Baptist family and attended a Catholic school, even toying with the idea of becoming a priest. But it was the poetic, socially conscious lyrics of hip-hop artists — especially Rakim, a pioneer in rap and a Muslim — that moved him to convert as a teenager.
For his part, Mr. Ellison, 52, said in his 2014 memoir, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future,” that he has never been one to overtly display his faith in public.
“I practice my faith the way that millions of other Americans practice their faith: personally,” he wrote. “I never wanted to be put in a position of being seen as some sort of Islamic leader.”
But their religion has set them apart in a Congress that is 57 percent Protestant and 31 percent Catholic. When he became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, Mr. Ellison rankled some members by choosing to be sworn in on the Quran.
When Representative André Carson was first introduced to Islam, he was a young man watching as his Muslim neighbors escorted older women to the grocery store and scared drug dealers off their streets in Indianapolis
It was Mr. Ellison’s testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee in 2011 that provided perhaps the most indelible image of the intersection between his job and his faith. Denouncing the purpose of the hearing — “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response” — as “scapegoating,” Mr. Ellison spoke stirringly about a 23-year-old Muslim emergency medical worker who died at the World Trade Center in 2001, becoming so emotional he struggled to finish.“His life should not be defined as a member of an ethnic group or a member of a religion,” he said, “but as an American who gave everything for his fellow citizens.”
Like Mr. Ellison, Mr. Carson is also private about how he practices his faith. Mr. Carson declined to elaborate on how often he prays or whether he abstains from consuming alcohol.
“You won’t see me praying on the House floor on C-Span, but I do pray,” Mr. Carson said.
Still, their beliefs have been called into question by some members of Congress. Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, said Wednesday on MSNBC that Mr. Ellison should be asked when taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution: “Which is superior: the Constitution or Shariah law?”
Congressional staff members who are Muslim have prayed together on Fridays since the days of Speaker Newt Gingrich, gathering in the largest room in the Capitol along with occasional foreign visitors — some of whom marveled that they could do so on government property, said Assad Akhter, deputy chief of staff to Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey.
But the rise of extremist terrorist groups has left some feeling “trapped,” said Mr. Akhter, a former president of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association.
“On the one side, we have religious extremists who are trying to tell us what Islam is, though we believe that’s a perversion of our faith,” he said. “And on the other side, we have political people telling us that our faith is something to fear.