First Muslim congressman campaigns for Sanders in Cedar Rapids

'This is the kind of leadership our nation needs right now'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At a time of anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates including Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, Americans of all faiths should stand up for religious freedom, said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress.

One way to do that is by caucusing Feb. 1 for Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator seeking the Democratic bid for president, Ellison told about 40 people Wednesday at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.

“Whoever wins Iowa will create national momentum,” Ellison said. “My question for you is do you want a presidential candidate willing to stand up to bullies?”

Ellison, a Democrat whose district includes Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, converted from Catholicism to Islam in college. He posed for photos Wednesday with Taha Tawil, director of the Mother Mosque of America, based in Cedar Rapids. Tawil and Ellison went on the Hajj pilgrimage together in 2008.

Ellison said he endorsed Sanders because of the senator’s commitment to middle class and lower-income Americans. The men have both supported legislation to increase the federal minimum wage and strip subsidies from oil companies, Ellison said.

Ellison said he was proud of Sanders, who entered a Washington, D.C., mosque and spoke out against Islamophobia on Dec. 16, the day after a televised Republican debate in which candidates talked about monitoring Muslims in America.

“This is the kind of leadership our nation needs right now,” Ellison said.

Ellison received applause from the group when he said America should admit more Syrian refugees and denounce Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Newman Abuissa, of Iowa City, asked Ellison how he would compare Sanders with other Democrats running for president.

“I’m not going to trash talk other Democrats,” Ellison said.

But Sanders has opposed trade deals, which Ellison described as pacts allowing companies to exploit cheap labor abroad to bring Americans slightly less expensive goods.

“Bernie has always been consistent about the need to address climate change,” Ellison said. Unlike “somebody who suddenly got religion when polls come out.”

Khadidja Elkeurti, a Kennedy High School senior who plans to caucus for Sanders, said his policy is more anti war than other candidates. Her support of Sanders had influenced her mother, Karima Elkeurti.

“I think he’s a guy who knows more about the middle class,” Karima Elkeurti said. She was glad to hear from Ellison, who she believes is representing Muslims well in Congress.

“We are just regular American people trying to do good in this country,” she said.

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