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Sectarian Peace Begins at Home

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON--This country's first Muslim to be elected to Congress has not been sworn in yet but he's already taking heat.

Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and radio talk show host, objects to the holy book on which Rep.-elect Keith Ellison plans to take his oath of office on Jan. 4.

The Minnesota Democrat plans to use a Koran, the Muslim holy book, instead of a Bible.

Poor naive me. Here I thought it was an encouraging sign of this country's respect for liberty and diversity that Americans would elect a Muslim to Congress in the midst of an international war against Islamic terrorists. No country is perfect, but we've come a long way on the tolerance scale since World War II when thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were rounded up into camps far from home just for having Japanese ancestry.

But, not Prager. Ellison's choice should be blocked, Prager wrote, "not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act (of taking the oath on the Koran) undermines American culture."

Again, poor naive me. I had no idea that American civilization was so fragile. Prager must think that Koran is some truly powerful book.

"America, Not Keith Ellison, Decides What Book a Congressman Takes His Oath On," said Prager's headline with a dangling preposition. In fact, the America I know has a Constitution. In Article VI, it says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust."

Besides, contrary to Prager's account, House members are sworn in together on the floor of the chamber. The ritual that usually involves a Bible or another holy book is actually a ceremonial photo op with the speaker of the House.

Prager insists that he was not calling for a religious test. Yet, he also wrote this: "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress." The Constitution does not have a religious test, but Prager does, judging by his writing.

But, Prager is not just another ambitious crank looking to feather his nest with a little pinch of old-fashioned demagoguery. He's got connections in important places. He was appointed by President Bush in August to fill a vacancy on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

The council oversees the taxpayer-supported Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose mission statement encourages visitors "to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy." The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group that supported Ellison's election, asked President Bush to remove Prager from the board. They didn't think he was living up to the museum's mission statement.

But Bush declined to step in. As his press secretary Tony Snow, put it, Ellison's holy book is "an issue that the president does not need to adjudicate and, therefore, will not." That's understandable. Bush has enough to worry about with sectarian clashes in Iraq without stepping into Prager's war over whose holy book is more "American."

Prager, you may notice, is the sort of a commentator who uses the word "America" a lot, even when he is speaking for hardly anyone outside of himself. Or maybe I just don't live in Prager's America. Lucky me.

The Anti-Defamation League called Prager's views "intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American." I guess they don't live in Prager's America, either.

But, rest assured that Prager's fellow conservatives have not rushed to his side, either. In the case of the conservative New York Sun, for example, Prager appears to have performed a minor miracle: He has made Ellison look sympathetic in the eyes of a newspaper that opposed his election. "Mr. Prager is not only wrong," a Sun editorial said, "but his comments are so outrageous and, by our lights, almost unbelievably ignorant, that one just has to shake one's head in wonder."

Fortunately, Sen. Norm Coleman emerged as a welcome voice of reason late last week. He's a Republican from Ellison's home state and a fellow member with Prager on the memorial council. In that spirit, he took a middle-of-the-road position: Ellison should feel free to use the Quran, Coleman said, and Prager should be allowed to stay on the Holocaust board. "I don't agree with Dennis Prager," said Coleman, according to Associated Press. "But I think it's absurd to rescind his appointment on the Holocaust board."

Sounds good to me. Both sides should back off in the spirit of all-American tolerance and mutual respect for differences. After all, we need to set a good example for Iraq.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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