Southtown Star: Muslim congressman speaks at symposium

The first Muslim elected to U.S. Congress shared some of his experiences as an elected official with those who hope to follow in his footsteps one day. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was keynote speaker at the Muslim Youth Leadership Symposium, hosted by the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The symposium was held at the Mosque Foundation Community Center, 7260 W. 93rd St., in Bridgeview.

The two-day event brought together Muslim high school students from the area to inspire them to use their faith values toward constructive citizenship, benefiting their communities and country.

Ellison told the 100 or so students in the audience being in a position of leadership means not only recognizing problems, but finding the solutions to them. And he said it would be up to them to build cultural understanding.

He encouraged students to look within themselves and embrace the challenges they face as Muslims, even if those challenges seem unfair.

"You've been given a gift, an opportunity to face adversity with courage, with patience, with the assistance of prayer. And to come out on the other side of it more successful than you were before. Find out about things about yourself you didn't know before," he said.

Ellison told of the adversity he's faced as a Muslim such as during his run for Congress when Robert Fine, brother of his opponent Alan Fine, called him a terrorist.

During such trying times, he received support from his family and friends during the campaign. He said it was his faith that helped carry him.

He said teachings in the Koran could help the racial divide in America. And he encouraged students to embrace and answer questions about their faith, even if those questions seem repetitive.

"Let's use what we have, what our faith is all about, to help America get over the barrier of racial division and false barriers based on color," he said.

Ellison went on to say if more people knew of what Islam had to teach, the controversy created by statements from presidential candidate Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, might not have occurred.

Ellison took questions from the audience. At one point, he was asked whether Republican presidential candidate John McCain should be forgiven for saying he would never vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.

He reiterated Islam's teaching of mercy.

"That's what it means to be Muslim. To want the best for everyone, even if they want to chop you up into little pieces," he said.

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