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Column – Muslim congressman doesn’t duck questions about faith

INDIANAPOLIS – U.S. Rep. Andre Carson entered a synagogue in this city bearing a kippah, the traditional Jewish head covering, and a joke.

“I look like a Jewish George Foreman,” said Carson, who does indeed bear a passing resemblance to the bald, burly, black boxer – though Carson is two and a half decades younger.

The line got a laugh from an audience that offered what may seem like an unexpectedly warm welcome.

Carson is Muslim, one of only two in Congress.

In January, the Indianapolis congressman was the first Muslim to be named to the House’s super-secret Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence – an appointment that raised the ire of arch-conservatives who called him a “Trojan horse” for Islamic extremists.

Hosting last week’s event, where Carson spoke, was the Indianapolis Jewish Relations Council, the advocacy arm of the city’s organized Jewish community and an unapologetic supporter of Israel.

The council and Carson, elected in 2008, haven’t always agreed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. But council leaders have defended him as a patriotic American, something that he greatly appreciates.

Lindsey Mintz, the council’s executive director, thanked Carson for helping build a bridge between the Jewish and Muslim communities and for engaging in hard discussions of faith.

In turn, Carson thanked the council for its invitation. Then he launched into a question-and-answer session that covered, among other things, his three trips to Israel, his meeting last summer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and persistent rumors that the U.S. president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood devoted to turning the world into an Islamist empire.

Carson didn’t turn away, even when the evening’s moderator offered him an out.

“I don’t think politicians should run from these kinds of conversations,” he said.

Carson’s largely pro-Israel voting record helped give him credence with his audience, who later fed him dessert and inquired about his wife, Mariama, a public school principal.

But so, too, does his background. Carson’s a Baptist by birth who was educated in Catholic schools. He was a teenage convert to Islam after seeing Muslims chase away drug dealers in his neighborhood.

Before he was elected to Congress in a majority-white district represented by his grandmother, Julia Carson, for nearly two decades, Andre Carson was in law enforcement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, working to streamline data-sharing among intelligence agencies.

Before his appointment to the committee that oversees intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts, he was on House Armed Service Committee.

Still, his motives get questioned because of his faith.

He shared stories of that with his audience last week, with a dose of humor.

“There are people who think somehow because I’m Muslim, I’m un-American, that I’m part of some kind of sleeper cell,” he said. “I think they watch too much ‘Homeland.’ ”

Carson has taken grief for being sympathetic to supporters of Israel and grief for not being Muslim-enough.

He was criticized for speaking at a national conference of Muslim organizations in Chicago last December. Then he was criticized for chastising some of those organizations for using religion as an excuse for bigotry and the mistreatment of women.

After last week’s meeting with Indianapolis Jewish Relations Council, Carson recalled his experience as a teenager of being pulled over by white police officers who were suspicious of him.

It was an early lesson in explaining himself to doubters, he said, and has helped shape the person he is today.

“Having to explain yourself and to defend what you do is good for any politician.”’

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden