On the evening after Minnesota’s Democratic primary in September, Makram El-Amin picked up his ringing cell phone to hear the raspy, exhausted voice of Keith Ellison. The men had known each other for a decade, long enough for El-Amin to become the imam of a mosque in their North Minneapolis neighborhood and Ellison to win a seat as the area’s state representative.

Now Ellison had survived a bruising campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress and was headed into a general election. It was bound to include even more scrutiny and vitriol from opponents, based on his past in the Nation of Islam and his present as a Sunni Muslim. So Ellison was calling, as El-Amin recounted the other day, not as a politician but as a congregant, seeking pastoral counsel.

“Be the person you’ve been all along,” El-Amin recalls telling Ellison. “Be a public servant, not an Islamic spokesman. Keep the interest of all the people in the forefront. That’s what Muhammad himself would do.”

Two months later, Ellison won election, becoming the first Muslim member of Congress. As for El-Amin, he was transformed into a congressman’s imam, putting an Islamic imprint on the role of spiritual adviser played by such figures as the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In Minneapolis, El-Amin has made a reputation for engaging across racial and denominational lines. None of that, it must be said, has stopped him from receiving pointed questions about Islam and terrorism or Islam.

“I’m not offended that the American people want to know what we believe and why we believe,” he said. “That’s sensible. It’s the mischaracterization that’s irresponsible. If someone asks me why the reward for martyrdom is heaven with unlimited virgins, I have to tell him that’s a complete myth.”


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