The story broke just over a month ago: Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, would be appointing the first Muslim ever to serve on the House's Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The congressman in question is the man who represents the 7th District in the State of Indiana, Rep. Andre Carson
The right-wing blogosphere immediately lost its collective mind, followed rapidly by talk radio.
The Daily Caller howled that Carson "received political contributions from Islamist groups named as unindicted co-conspirators of terrorist organizations and once gave a speech in which he said that the U.S. education system should be based on the Koran."
Breitbart.com, quoting the Middle East Forum, warned that "Carson has received nearly $34,000 in campaign funds from Islamist sources, primarily individuals affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
CAIR has been linked to Hamas by the FBI. Hamas is listed as a terorrist organization by the U.S. government."
Neither Breitbart nor MEF seemed terribly interested in running down exactly who those individuals might be and what their connection to an admittedly controversial group was, however. For their part, according to the MEF's mission statement: "The Middle East Forum promotes American interests in the Middle East and protects Western values from Middle Eastern threats. ... At home, the Forum emphasizes the danger of lawful Islamism; protects the freedoms of anti-Islamist authors, activists, and publishers; and works to improve Middle East studies." (Emphasis added.)
On the flipside, The Star's Matt Tully opined that Carson was "shattering Muslim stereotypes." Tim Mak, writing for The Daily Beast, took Indy talk show host Tony Katz (WIBC-FM) to task for his critique:
Carson's most vocal opponent is conservative talk show host Tony Katz, who hosts a top Indiana radio show and has called for the congressman's resignation. Katz and others objected to a Muslim American conference that Carson spoke at in late 2014, alleging that an individual with terrorist ties attended the event and that the congressman should not have been in attendance.
"I question his intelligence for showing up to [the] event. I question whether someone like that should be attending the House Intelligence Committee," Katz told The Daily Beast. The radio host stopped short of questioning the congressman's patriotism, but said his attendance at the conference raises questions about the congressman's "belief in law and justice" over the "vigilante violence" of terrorism.
Regarding CAIR and the event in question: The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is civil rights advocacy group based out of Washington D.C. While its vision and mission as a lobbying body is to advocate for justice and mutual understanding, the organization has fallen victim to Islamophobia for years. In 2007, it was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Holy Land Foundation trial in Texas. Officials with Holy Land were convicted for diverting funds to Hamas, a well-known terrorist organization. Although CAIR was never charged in the case and there was no evidence to suggest otherwise, the rumor damage had been done and CAIR was labeled as an organization with terrorist ties.
The terrorist rhetoric against CAIR and another U.S. Muslim advocacy group, The Muslim American Society, resurrected in mid-November 2014 when both groups were placed on a terrorist watch list along with over 80 other organizations from around the world. The list was generated by the United Arab Emirates. No one knows exactly why CAIR and MAS were placed on the list, but an article in the Washington Post noted both organizations are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood which is at political odds with the U.A.E.
Carson was branded with a scarlet T as soon after the U.A.E.'s terrorist watch list became public because of contributions from both groups made to his campaigns. The screams of terrorist ties grew stronger when Carson spoke at the Muslim American Society-Islamic Circle of North America Convention Appreciation dinner in Chicago a month after the groups appeared on the U.A.E. watch list. More confusion erupted after the convention program listed Carson as a panelist in a discussion about Ferguson, MO. The panel was also to include MAS executive director Mozen Mohktar, who critics say was under FBI investigation in 2007 for allegedly operating a website that was raising funds for an Al-Qaida terrorist in Britain who was eventually convicted of plotting against U.S. landmarks and warships. Carson denied even knowing about the panel discussion let alone participating in it and issued this public statement:
As a former law enforcement officer with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security in the anti-terrorism unit, it is critical that Americans know that I would never associate with any individual or organization trying to harm the United States of America or its citizens.
Text, context and Islam
Yep, Andre Carson's a Muslim. But there's more that defines the guy. Carson's tall, imposing in stature but not in attitude, genteel. He's a public servant. And he's a Black man from a red state, a state that's something more than merely midwestern, a state that was once run by the Klan and has been disparagingly referred to as "the middle finger of South."
Yep, Andre Carson's a Muslim. And since 9/11 — and the rise and fall of Al-Qaida, the rise of the "Islamic State" and its horrifying execution of innocents, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, name it — there's a knee-jerk reaction from many corners, from Bill O'Reilly to Bill Maher, that "Islamic" equals violence, that the notion of the faith as a "religion of peace" is more than cliché, it's a cover.
NUVO's Amber Stearns and Ed Wenck talked with Carson by phone shortly after Pelosi's announcement, and spoke to the Congressman about his faith, about DC, and about growing up Black in Indy in the '70s and '80s.
Carson, raised by his grandmother, Rep. Julia Carson, was encouraged by the Congresswoman to explore his own journey of faith. It was something that began to solidify for Carson when he was a teenager. "She allowed me to process my journey which is a lot easier to do when you don't have a mortgage and home as a ... kid." Carson read all he could about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, but soon found himself aligned with the teachings of Warith Deen Mohammed.
W.D. Mohammed was a child of he Nation of Islam's Elijah Mohammed, but as W.D. grew older, he found his father's separatist leanings counterproductive. Additionally, the Nation's portrayal of Caucasians as "white devils" didn't line up with the teachings W.D. found in the Qu'ran.
Excommunicated from the Nation for a time by his own family, W.D., his wife and children, were threatened and harassed. W.D. eventually found reinstatement when Eljah Mohammed fell ill, becoming the Nation's eventual leader — and progressive reformer — upon the death of his dad. Mohammed preached racial inclusion, interfaith co-operation and understanding, and ultimately did away with both the Nation's paramilitary arm and its dress codes for men and women.
It's a theology that seems a far cry from alarmist clickbait and the stereotype of a "Jihadist in our midst." In fact, if a recent article in the Atlantic is accurate ("What ISIS Really Wants"), one would think that the House Intelligence Committee would be profoundly well served by a Representative who's well versed in the Qu'ran — and its modern as well as medieval readings.
"In any religion there's text and then there's context," explains Carson. (He doesn't even seem weary from repeated explanations of his tenets.) "As I said in a [recent] interview, the Prophet ... talks about how after one relieves him or herself, they should wipe themselves with three smooth stones. He was speaking about etiquette, how to be civilized — but that was a seventh-century context."
There's a pause in our conversation. Is the Congressman going there?
"Now, of course, we have Charmin," Carson continues. It's hard to keep a straight face when the man's bringing poop jokes into the mix. But the point's taken.
"In the seventh century, that may have been relevant, especially in a desert environment where there's not much grass. Again, there's text and then there's context. And a lot of things that we see in scripture, whether it's the gospel, the Torah or the Qu'ran ... there's a historical aspect to what's being said and there's a deeper meaning or a spiritual aspect to what's being said as well."
Carson's aware that a lot of Americans are uncomfortable with a religion they've been told is violent and misogynistic on its best day. "There are Presbyterians and Methodists, but there are different schools of thought in the religion of Islam. There are over 1.6 billion Muslims on the Earth. It's a monotheistic faith, but Muslims aren't monolithic."
And yes, the experience of a Black Muslim in Indy will undoubtedly lead to a vastly different belief system than, say, a Yemeni whose house has seen collateral damage from a U.S. drone strike. "You're going to have regional influences, you're going to have cultural influences and ethnic influences on the faith. But, I think even with the nuances being in place, there's still an avenue for us to talk about the tenets of the faith which discourage [violent] behavior, which encourage peace and I think in a very real sense, highlight women in a very meaningful way. Any student of the religion understands that, but unfortunately we live in a soundbite society where you have media outlets and folks in the blogosphere I think who are not helping the discussion, on either side of the aisle, even the extremists who are using social media as a recruitment tool and as a way to spew disinformation and misinformation and propaganda."
The Muslim on the Committee
Carson's wanted this position for a while: "I've been trying to get this for almost seven years," he tells us. And yeah, he knew there'd be blowback. "I think that we expected some naysayers. I've not been focused on it. ... It helps that you get in Congress, you pay your dues on different committees, you get a committee you're deeply passionate about and you're concerned about the issues, all the better. We can serve our constituents and keep our country safe — it's a personal delight because I have some background in intel and I think it was the right pick for me."
So, was part of his desire to serve on the committee a desire to prove that a man who was identified as Islamic could be, to put it bluntly, trusted? Carson, ever the politician, measures his answer. "I'm the only member of Congress who has ever served in an intelligence fusion center. I think it's an asset. Our country's very diverse. Congress reflects that diversity. There are a lot of attempted terrorist efforts that are thwarted largely because there are Muslims out there, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish people and others who are providing information to help keep our community safer."
But Carson's aware that groups overseas are doing one hell of a good job when it comes to global recruiting.
"I think the issue that exists with reaching out to young people lies heavily on local religious institutions, it relies heavily on local governments, no matter what the country is, to really make it a priority to increase their outreach efforts and to provide job opportunites and educational opportunities to some of these young people ... [sometimes they] feel marginalized and ostracized from society, which opens the door for extremist elements ... to take advantage of their disillusionment." A recent episode of 60 Minutes posited that the Charlie Hebdo assassins weren't part of any larger cell — they were petty criminals from a Paris slum who found a quick and twisted way to take revenge on a culture they felt had wronged them personally.
Some of Carson's colleagues — a notable example would be Peter King — have called for surveillance directed at Muslim communities in the U.S., even surveillance of houses of worship. If that's created any tension on the floor, Carson's not really letting on. "A lot of my colleagues have Muslim constituents in their districts who they interact with quite regularly who support them as well — it has been my sense that a lot of my colleagues, though they may not be aware of what Muslims necessarily believe, they have had interactions with Muslims," explains Carson. "I think a lot of them are smarter than their rhetoric suggests in terms of knowing that we cannot win the war on terror without having input from Muslims, without having Muslims a part of ... the FBI or other law enforcement agencies. I think that there's a degree of political pageantry that takes place on cable news channels, but behind closed doors I have found many of [my colleagues] to be far more sensible than their rhetoric suggests."
So, is the Congressman suggesting that "dysfunctional DC" is just a myth?
"No, no, no, I don't want to mislead you ... I think Washington as a whole is another matter." It's the committees where bipartisanship shines and phobias diminish, "be they Intelligence, be they Homeland Security, or Armed Services. I think [my colleagues] are far more sensible than they let on. ... I sat on Armed Services, that was a very bipartisan committee and even Intelligence tends to be one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress. I think we probably depart on issues like education, clearly healthcare, and ways in which we can have capital infusions to different districts and taxation issues. But when it comes to protecting our country and dealing with potential threats, I think we're pretty much on the same page.
Just because Carson and King may exchange pleasantries doesn't mean that Indiana's Congressman signs off on some of the tactics that have been used by the NYPD. "I've been to New York several times and participated in rallies. One of the rallies was with Russell Simmons and Rabbi [Mark] Schneier [from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding] discouraging Islamophobia and I've been very critical about this surveillance program ... I think it exacerbates existing tensions and hostilities. And a lot of hostility goes back particularly to J. Edgar Hoover's counterintelligence program's infamous Cointelpro. But, I think in a real sense, in a post 9/11 reality, there has to be an interaction with the Muslim community and law enforcement that just isn't transactional. It has to be one where law enforcement doesn't show up when they're trying to question congregants. It has to be one in which, and I just had this conversation with the local Sikh community, where some of those folks are trying to become a part of police agencies, but they can't get past their religious commitment of wearing head coverings. And so it has to be a space where law enforcement can recognize the differences but the community has to feel that the investment is genuine and not just to extract information or even have a few meetings and the spy on the community. It has to be one in which it's reciprocal."