My local congressional district has a special election in a couple of weeks to fill the House seat vacated by the late Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind. You wouldn't know it from reading our local newspaper The Indianapolis Star, but the Democratic candidate for the seat, Carson's grandson Andre Carson, could become the nation's second Muslim member of Congress. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., became the first Muslim member of Congress just over a year ago, and he highlighted the occasion by taking the oath of office with a Quran once owned by President Thomas Jefferson. In the void left by the Star, the Associated Press's Ken Kusmer stepped up and wrote a rather positive story on Carson's faith appropriately highlighting the fact that national Muslim organizations are quite excited about Carson's candidacy:
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said Ellison and Carson both built their political base by gaining the confidence of Democratic leaders, not by running on their religion.
However, he said Ellison and Carson 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," Al-Marayati said.
Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said 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," Saylor said.
The Star can't ignore this aspect much longer. An article by local columnist Matt Tully on Carson's qualifications for the job completely ignored the issue, which is probably appropriate since religion is anything but a qualification for office in this country. But that doesn't mean the issue should be ignored. Religion is a critical aspect of a person's life and forms their values.
Here's how the AP handled the issue:
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," Carson 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.
Carson 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.
For more on this, check out former Indianapolis Star columnist Ruth Holladay's interview with Carson on the subject of religion on her rather excellent blog. Holladay digs into the subject of Carson's conversion to Islam, which involved his interest in hip hop and rap music, the autobiography of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam's opposition to the drug culture in Indianapolis.
There's a great story here for the Star to tell if they would just step up to the plate and admit that religion is an issue worth covering in the news pages even if it involves politics.