In recent days it has been widely reported that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., is being considered as the new head of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison is appealing to his supporters for several reasons. Not only is he a staunch progressive, but he is also black and the first Muslim elected to Congress. In the eyes of his supporters, he is a living rebuke to the president-elect, Donald Trump.
As appealing as the symbolism may be, Ellison is still a problematic choice. He has a long history of actual extremism that ought to make him unfit for the position.
Ellison's deep ties with Muslim communal organizations, including several that are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, are not a surprise — nor do such ties necessarily reflect poorly on him, by themselves. It is natural for Muslim organizations of any stripe to support the first Muslim in Congress; and one might imagine that Ellison would hesitate to distance himself even from objectionable organizations, so as not to give in to "Islamophobic" pressure.
However, there is a difference between the failure to condemn extremist activity, and active endorsements of it. Ellison has crossed that line frequently.
In his early days, Keith Ellison was an active supporter of Louis Farrakhan, the racist and anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. This stretched at least from Ellison's time in law school in the late 1980s until 1995, when Ellison was an organizer of the Million Man March. During this period, Ellison wrote a column for Insight News describing Farrakhan as "a role model for black youth."
Youthful radicalism can be repented of and forgiven, and during his 2006 campaign for Congress, Ellison wrote a letter disavowing his connection with the Nation of Islam. However, in that letter he claimed that his association had only been for the 18 months surrounding the Million Man March. This was not true. He also claimed that he was unfamiliar with the NOI's racist and anti-Semitic views. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny, and this seems less a case of genuine repentance than of a politician trying to airbrush his past.
Ellison's early radicalism only continued after he was in office. In a July 2007 speech, he called for an investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks and explicitly compared them to the 1933 Reichstag fire — in which Nazi agents burned down the Reichstag themselves in order to justify seizing dictatorial power. At that same speech, Ellison called Vice President Cheney a "totalitarian" dictator.
Rep. Ellison is a regular speaker at events organized by the Council for American-Islamic Relations. CAIR was founded in 1994 by three officials of the Islamic Association of Palestine, a Hamas front group. Because of its extremist associations, the Obama Justice Department banned its personnel from working with CAIR in 2009. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates designated CAIR as a terrorist organization due to its links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2008, Rep. Ellison spoke at the annual banquet of CAIR-Tampa. At that banquet, he expressed his support for convicted terror financier Sami Al-Arian, the North American head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian was no mere community activist, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a major player who had set up several front organizations for supporting terror activities; these included the Islamic Committee for Palestine, which was in fact a key fundraising arm for Palestinian Islamic Jihad's terror operations, and the World and Islamic Studies Enterprise. Both of these organizations were shut down by Federal investigators in 1995 for involvement in terrorism.
If Rep. Ellison's constituents in a safe Minnesota district want to keep him in office, that's their business. But the Democratic Party should recognize the potential harm to its own future (to say nothing of to the country as a whole) in elevating him to lead the DNC.
Dr. Oren Litwin is the Islamist Money in Politics research fellow for Islamist Watch, a program of the Middle East Forum.