What Was That About Virginia Going Purple?
In tobacco country, the man who led the fight for a wildly generous federal tobacco buyout, seemed unscathed by the fact that he was also known as "Representative A," the man who was identified in court papers as the congressman who took $46,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a defense contractor that was trying to win his support for a big fat federal gift. The MZM company got its $3.6 million federal earmark thanks to Goode, and Virgil won reelection anyway.
So it shouldn't come as any surprise that Goode feels real good about his letter to a constituent warning against a Muslim takeover of the United States and ripping newly elected congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota for daring to choose to be sworn in using a Koran instead of a Bible.
Here's the complete text of Goode's letter to a constituent:
December 7, 2006
Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.
The Ten Commandments and "In God We Trust" are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, "As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall of my office." Thank you again for your email and thoughts.
Virgil H. Goode, Jr.
Of course, Goode's pride in his bigotry only goes so far: His press secretary noted that it was the congressman's personal choice to exclude members of the national press from his news conference where he affirmed his stand against Muslims. "Orders from Virgil," the spokesman said. Wouldn't want any of those negative questions from people who don't understand that this is a Christian nation, right?
"I do not apologize, and I do not retract my letter," Goode said at his news conference, where six sheriff's deputies were placed around the room because the congressman's office had received unspecified threats following his anti-Muslim remarks.
Not only reporters, but even Goode's own constituents were barred from his news conference. Now there's a congressman with confidence in his convictions.
If the prospect of a congressman putting his hand on a Koran gives Goode the willies, I hope he doesn't have occasion to enter the chambers of Hassan El-Amin, the Prince George's County district court judge who is the first Muslim judge in Maryland history. There, Goode would find--horrors--the text of the Koran sharing a place of honor with photos of Malcolm X, a miniature Statue of Liberty, and American law books. For many voters in Virginia's fifth congressional district, that might be a frightening vision. But some Americans find that tableau downright inspiring.
(I profiled Judge El-Amin back in 2001--full text on the jump.)
Of course, the question made him angry. Hassan El-Amin was up for a judgeship, a chance to become the first Muslim judge in Maryland history, and someone wanted to know if being a Muslim and being a judge, a custodian of American law, would be compatible.
"I wanted to say, 'Well, we have Catholic judges and Jewish judges, and nobody asks them that question,' " El-Amin recalls. But instead he said this: "The two are absolutely consistent, and I just revel in the harmonies between Islam and the American ideals, everything from the Preamble to the Bill of Rights and the great value that's placed on the individual as a creation of God."
You haven't heard much like that lately, have you?
Prince George's District Court Judge Hassan El-Amin, his black robes hanging on the coatrack, his tie loosened, lays that down and then launches into a soaring tribute to Jefferson and Madison and how their ideals became the rock of this nation and how those ideals struggled with the realities of slavery and other inequities until we reached this room at this moment: a Muslim, a black man, a guy who sold fish on the streets of Washington, who now comes to work each day, puts on a robe and interprets and enforces laws inspired by the Founding Fathers.
"We're evolving in this country almost at light speed, from Jim Crow through the earthquake of the '60s to the point where the law now can be used to further the interests of justice," says El-Amin, 52, who grew up working-class Baptist in Charleston, W.Va. "It's almost miraculous."
He was Vernon Jones then, and he won a full scholarship to Yale, traveled the world, indulged in women and wine, and in the confused times of the early '70s found himself searching for something more. He found Islam, in the version that attracted many young blacks of the period, the seething separatism of the Nation of Islam.
"That nationalism was healthy for us as an antidote to white supremacy, but fortunately, I grew through that," El-Amin says now. Looking at some followers of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam who are peddling wacko conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 attacks, the judge says: "I thank God I am not subject to such demagoguery. It is a one-way ticket to despair."
Instead, El-Amin followed W. Deen Mohammed, the son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Mohammed, in the 1975 mass conversion out of the race-based movement and into traditional Islam. Feeling liberated by his break from the Nation's cocoon, El-Amin went into the civil service and on to law school. As a lawyer, he handled criminal defense and civil cases in Washington and Prince George's County before being tapped for the bench by Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year.
In court, he is decisive and direct, pressing lawyers to cut out the baroque mannerisms and get to the nub of the issue. He rotates among criminal, civil, domestic violence and traffic courts. Like the best traffic court judges, he pushes through the staggering caseload with humor and moral outrage as his most effective tools.
One day in traffic court, he dispenses with 326 cases in six hours, dishing out fines, points, fatherly admonitions and the occasional scolding: When Denise Gibson, an insolent young woman up on a speeding charge, answers his questions with sullen "Mmm-hmm"s, El-Amin tries a gentle "Excuse me?" Gibson, oblivious, repeats her mumble.
"I feel sorry for your parents," the judge tells her. "If you can't say 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' to a judge, I can't imagine how you speak to your parents. Be careful about that. Courtesy will get you a long way in this world. All right?"
"Mmm-hmm," came the reply, and the packed courtroom broke up, as did the judge.
Moments later, El-Amin reluctantly lets off James Tkatch on a negligent driving charge that came to court after Tkatch cursed out a state trooper. The judge calls the driver's behavior "offensive and uncivilized" but finds for Tkatch nonetheless because the law requires a negligent driver to have endangered himself or others, and there's no proof of that here. "I'm very upset about what I heard, but I have to uphold the law as it is written," El-Amin says.
The next day, presiding over a trial in which the family of an 8-year-old boy is suing a neighbor whose dog bit the boy as he played in his own yard, El-Amin again finds himself letting off someone who acted poorly. "The problem is, the law does not provide a remedy for every wrong," the judge softly tells the disappointed father of the victim.
It's not a message many people like to hear in court. But it is the heart of El-Amin's philosophy of fidelity to the law and openness to all citizens. "I wanted to give the kid some money," the judge tells me later. "But I have to follow the law."
Since Sept. 11, El-Amin has heard only support from his colleagues in the courthouse. Those who come before him sometimes stare at his nameplate, but no one has said anything remotely abusive or disrespectful. (The judge says that because he is black and native-born, he probably has had an easier time than he might have were he an Arab Muslim.)
Yet like all American Muslims, El-Amin has come face to face with questions about the compatibility of his identities. He is secure in his answers. "In many respects, America is more Islamic than many of the Islamic countries, because there is opportunity here for the human soul to develop. Nothing in this country interferes with the internal development of the individual."
What makes America great, El-Amin says, is the flexibility our system allows each person to follow his own path -- in faith, in work, in family. Islamic countries once fostered that flexibility, "and they should again," he says. "The prophet Muhammed respected Christians and Jews; the flow of Islamic knowledge into Europe sparked the Renaissance. But the Muslims themselves got lost in schools of thought. And the importance of improving the lives of every man and woman -- and I mean to emphasize 'woman' -- has unfortunately taken a back seat in Islamic countries to the ironclad rule of Islamic law."
Unlike too many Muslim leaders who seem tongue-tied in the aftermath of Sept. 11, El-Amin is straight and clear: "We are in a war with people who are hijacking Islam. The hallmark of Islam is to be reasonable."
"I try to live my life as best I can," says the judge, whose adopted name, Hassan, means "one who improves." "I certainly don't look at myself as a role model, but as a striver, someone who's trying to lessen the burdens of life whether it's in the courtroom or on the golf course or as a Muslim."
His office houses a wonderfully American melange of symbols: photos of Malcolm X with other Muslim leaders, a miniature Statue of Liberty, certificates from the highest courts in the land, and in a prime spot on the wall, just across from the books of American law, a framed edition of the Koran.
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