WASHINGTON – When Mohamed Ghabour heard that a Muslim candidate, Keith Ellison, was running for Congress in Minneapolis, Ghabour turned to a sister-in-law who lives in Minnesota for a scouting report. "She said he's a good man," recalled Ghabour, a Muslim pediatrician from the Tampa, Fla., area. "That's all I needed to hear."
Ghabour contributed $999 to Ellison's campaign, joining other Muslim-American donors who are pinning their hopes, and their dollars, on Ellison becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Ellison, a state lawmaker who converted to Islam as a college student, would also become the first black elected to Congress from Minnesota. He is the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic, Minneapolis-area House district that is about 13 percent black, according to 2000 census data. The current congressman, Democrat Martin Sabo, is retiring.
Ellison, 43, stressed that he's just a "regular Muslim," not a religious leader or scholar.
"Muslims want to express themselves in American life — just like all other Americans do," Ellison said in an interview. "I think that it's very encouraging that while some people seek extremism, American Muslims are seeking inclusion and engagement in the American body politic."
As of Aug. 23, the latest filing period, Ellison had raised $317,000, but it's not certain how much of that came from Muslim contributors. Ellison raised $15,000 to $20,000 last month at a fundraiser with Muslim business owners in Minnesota, and a July fundraiser by young Muslim Capitol Hill staffers in Washington brought in about $5,000, according to Ellison's campaign manager, Dave Colling.
Interviews with donors suggest Muslims from all over the country have sent money to Ellison's campaign, both to help elect a Muslim and because they like his stance on the issues.
"I'm Muslim myself, and so I think that's important, but more important than that is his bringing people together across religious, racial and age spectrums," said Jeffrey Hassan, a lawyer from Brooklyn Park, Minn., who has give Ellison about $800. "I think that's more important than the fact that he's Muslim."
Sameh Shabaneh, an engineer from Woodbury, Minn., who gave Ellison $1,000, cited the candidate's support for the environment, removing troops from Iraq, and preserving civil liberties.
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, said Ellison's election would be a milestone for Muslim Americans.
"Every other community wants someone from their community to be part of the mosaic that represents the country," said Ahmed, who teaches finance at the University of North Florida and gave Ellison $500. "He would be a voice for people who don't have representation in Congress."
Republicans are trying to make an issue of a contribution from another Council on American-Islamic Relations official — executive director Nihad Awad, who gave Ellison $2,000.
In a fundraising letter last week, state GOP Chairman Ron Carey said Ellison has received "financial support from a self-identified supporter of Hamas."
That was a reference to Awad's 1994 statement that he preferred Hamas to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In an interview, Awad said that was before the group engaged in suicide bombings and was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.
"I don't support Hamas today," Awad said. "My position and CAIR's position is extremely clear — we condemn suicide bombings. We are mainstream American Muslims."
It's not the first time Ellison's associations — past and present — have provided fodder for the campaign. A day after Ellison won the Democratic primary last week, his underdog GOP opponent, Republican Alan Fine, said he was "offended as a Jew that we have a candidate like this running for U.S. Congress."
Fine cited Ellison's past ties to the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim group led by Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of harshly criticizing Jews, gays and other groups. Ellison has since denounced Farrakhan and was endorsed by a Jewish newspaper in Minneapolis.