Updated 5:30 p.m. | The two Muslim members of the House share the sentiments of their fellow Democrats: Under no circumstances should the United States block Syrian refugees from this country in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris..
But for Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and André Carson of Indiana, there’s a greater sense of urgency in how Congress responds to the violence at the hands of the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, that has a stranglehold in Syria. Ellison and Carson live and work in a political environment where “Islam” is often paired with the phrase “radical,” and many Republicans argue the only way to prevent “Muslim extremists” from coming to the United States is to bar entry of all asylum seekers from Syria.
President Barack Obama’s plans currently call for 10,000 Syrian refugees to come to the U.S. over the next year.
One of the terrorists responsible for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that left at least 129 people dead came to France through Greece, with a Syrian passport that designated him as a “political refugee.” That fact isn’t particularly helpful to Ellison and Carson, as they try to neutralize the rhetoric of their GOP colleagues.
“It’s very difficult to really break through,” Ellison told CQ Roll Call in a Monday night interview. “I’m going to try to speak up for the proper way to frame this issue, but I’m not under any illusion about how difficult that is.”
Carson, with whom Ellison said he discusses these very issues “all the time,” expressed a similar sentiment in a separate interview.
“Because there’s so much misunderstanding, miseducation about Islam — to have these people who are perpetuating this notion of some mythologized Islamic utopia and then kill innocent men, women and children, Muslims included — I think it’s a bad reputation,” Carson said. “And I think those of us who are of good will, and those Muslims who want the best for humanity, now’s the time for those folks to stand up and speak out and condemn these kinds of actions.”
Ellison, in his conversation with CQ Roll Call, was especially sensitive to the meaning of words in this debate.
Instead of calling the terrorist group ISIS or ISIL, the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Ellison chooses a word preferred outside of the U.S. and used by other countries: “Daesh.” That is the Arabic acronym for the organization and, if conjugated in a certain way, it roughly translates into “bigoted people who impose their view on others.” “Daesh said they would cut the tongue out of the mouth of anybody who calls them ‘Daesh,’ ” Ellison said, “so I call them Daesh.”
Calling the group ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or other names just continues to demonize Muslims, he said.
“Everybody calls them Daesh except for us,” Ellison said. “Here’s what the world gets that some of our leaders don’t get: That in the eyes of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the word, terms like ‘Islamic’ are good, not bad. Even terms like ‘jihad’ are good, not bad.”
Ellison said when you call someone a “Jihadi,” you are literally calling them “somebody who struggles in a righteous way.”
“They want you to call them that. We should call them what they are: Murderous homicidal terrorists,” he continued. “I think some of our intolerance about a religion we don’t really understand very well sort of guides us to use language that is actually counterproductive to the cause.”
Carson agreed: “I just hate when you have these organizations claiming to represent Islam — and Islam stands for peace, it represents peace.”
Ellison and Carson speak not just as Muslims, Democrats in Congress or black men. Ellison, who was first elected in 2006, is also co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and among a handful of liberals who supports military intervention to drive out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s not easy for me,” Ellison said.
Carson, first elected in March 2008, is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and his service there informs his understanding of the Middle East. He told CQ Roll Call that military, law enforcement and intelligence communities need the tools to ramp up the fight against terrorism and radicalization.
“Be it ISIS, be it radical supremacist groups, be it any organization that seeks to use the language and emotionalism to manipulate the hearts and minds of anyone,” Carson said.
Amid the calls from Republicans to close U.S. borders to Syrian refugees, Carson said to tread lightly.
“We have to be careful that we’re keeping our country safe but not being xenophobic, and I think we cannot use this incident to promote xenophobia in any kind of way,” he said.
Ellison had a similar warning as partisan tensions start to rise on Capitol Hill.
“Every time we close off refugees or don’t allow refugees, or we say hateful things about them, which Daesh will publicize in the press, we’re helping to strengthen their narrative that the West is hypocritical, that the West says we’re for helping refugees but we’re really not, and, ‘They’re not letting you in because you’re Muslim.’
“They want to be able to tell people that,” Ellison said. “And none of it’s true.”