A convert to Islam stands an election victory away from becoming the second Muslim elected to Congress and a role model for a faith community seeking to make its mark in national politics.
Political newcomer Andre Carson is the Democratic nominee in a March 11 special election to succeed his late grandmother, Julia Carson, representing Indiana's 7th District. She died in December of lung cancer, and her grandson is seeking to fill out the rest of her sixth term, which expires at year's end.
If Andre Carson wins the Democratic-leaning Indianapolis district over a freshman Republican legislator and a longshot Libertarian candidate, he would join Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., as the only Muslims elected to Congress.
Carson, 33, said he doesn't believe his religious identity hurts him politically even while American Muslims struggle to gain acceptance. Polling last summer by the Pew Research Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 29 percent of Americans held unfavorable views of Muslim Americans, a higher percentage than shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think it's more of an advantage," Carson said. "It's a platform to address ignorance. It's a platform to really show that this campaign is about inclusion of all races and religions."
However, Carson said his faith doesn't drive his stands on issues, other than instilling the values that have shaped his life and led him to public service. He said his decision-making is based on his constituents' needs.
"For me, the religion piece, it informs me. You need to respect people" regardless of their race, religion or gender, said Carson, who is black. "That is the foundation I go by." . . .
Unlike many U.S. Muslims, Carson said his faith rarely has become an issue for others in his civic life or law enforcement career that included a stint with an anti-terrorism unit of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Carson and Ellison spoke by telephone recently, and the Minnesota congressman who took office 13 months ago said he advised Carson to emphasize broad concerns such as the economy, the war in Iraq and global warning.
"These things don't have any particular religion or color or race," Ellison 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.
He predicted immigrant Muslims will join African Americans like Ellison and Carson on the national political scene. Sons and daughters of Muslims who arrived in the U.S. from Asia and Africa are energized politically and working on campaigns, he said.
"We see people starting to build up the civic resume that will get them elected to public office," Saylor said. "Give them five or 10 years." (MORE)