A Congressman Goes to Mecca

Devout Muslims are expected, at least once in their lives, to perform the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca. The annual event draws huge crowds of Muslims who carry out certain long-prescribed or customary rituals. This year’s Hajj has just ended; it was a historic event because, for the first time, an American Congressman participated.

Minneapolis’s Keith Ellison was among the pilgrims who made their way to Mecca, where he was one of many thousands who performed the ceremonial walk around the Kaaba, the black cube in this photo, which is located in the Grand Mosque:


For some reason, no local or national media, print or broadcast, have reported on Ellison’s pilgrimage to Mecca. But al Arabiya thought it was worthy of notice:

As Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress who performed Hajj this week, told CNN, you forget who you are — black or white and American or African — and where you come from when you are before God circling the Kaaba in a two-piece unstitched garment.

It’s hard to know what to make of the reticence displayed by local, as well as national, media. One would think this would be a great human interest story: America’s first Muslim Congressman journeys to Saudi Arabia to perform a set of rituals that is central to his faith. Yet not a word of it has leaked out.

Two factors may be at work here. First, while reporters and editors would take a sympathetic line, they may lack confidence that their readers and viewers would see Ellison’s Hajj the same way they do. Everyone who pays attention knows that Ellison is a Muslim, but perhaps a detailed focus on the activities surrounding the Hajj could make some uncomfortable. So perhaps our news media thought that Ellison’s cause would best be served by discretion.

Too, while the tone of any news coverage would of course have been positive, editors may have wrestled with the question of how to reconcile a puff-piece on Ellison’s Hajj with their customary attitude toward observant members of other religious faiths. Thus, news coverage of Ellison presumably would have noted his participation in the ceremony in which pilgrims symbolically throw stones at the Devil:


Speaking for myself, I’m perfectly fine with that. Legend has it that Martin Luther once threw an inkpot at Satan, too. Still, a scrupulous editor could hardly help thinking about how his newspaper or television network would cover a ritual in which a conservative Christian–take, for example, another Minnesota Representative, Michele Bachmann–threw stones at the Devil. The ridicule that such a gesture by a Christian would provoke can hardly be imagined.

Then, too, would news coverage include photos or video of Congressman Ellison wearing a “two-piece unstitched garment” as he circled the Kaaba? No wonder our news media decided that in covering what could be seen both as a great human interest story and a historic event, discretion was the better part of valor. It’s striking, though, what a great part such discretion by the news media (and not only about religious matters) has played in Congressman Ellison’s career.

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