Andre Carson's greatest political asset may be his grandmother's name, but one of his biggest liabilities is proving to be her funeral.
That's because his family gave a spot in the parade of dignitaries who eulogized Congresswoman Julia Carson to Louis Farrakhan, whom Jewish leaders consider one of America's leading anti-Semites, gay rights activists consider a homophobe and who famously referred to white people as "devils."
In recent weeks, Andre Carson has been reassuring Jewish leaders here and in Washington that Farrakhan's appearance wasn't his idea. He has spoken publicly about his distaste for discrimination, homophobia or racism of any kind. He has talked repeatedly of his desire for unity.
But the Farrakhan episode also called attention to something that went largely unrecognized before -- that Andre Carson is a Muslim and that, if elected March 11, he would be Indiana's first Muslim representative in Congress and only the second in U.S. history.
How his faith will factor with voters, if at all, is unknown. But in a post-September 11 world, it has led some of his own campaign advisers to interject, without being prompted, that Andre Carson is not an Osama bin Laden Muslim. And since the funeral -- which included Farrakhan's own plug for Carson's candidacy -- the young Carson has been trying to explain that he also is not a Louis Farrakhan Muslim.
Carson says his faith is just part of who he is. "It is not the totality. Like every other human being, I have various faces," he said. "I am multifaceted."
Carson explains in the story how he was originally drawn to the Nation of Islam but turned off by what he called Farrakhan's, divisiveness, admitting, however, that he attended Farrakhan's Million Man March in D.C. in 1995. King writes:
Perhaps most transformative, though, was the "Autobiography of Malcolm X," the story of a complex man who preached black separatism as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam only to moderate his views before his death.
That story -- and the young Nation of Islam men patrolling his neighborhoods -- made Andre curious, he said. But he couldn't get past the divisiveness embodied by Farrakhan.
"That did not match my experiences or personal beliefs," Carson said. "So, for me, it was like it was good to see the drug dealers being pushed out. But the philosophy and the ideology do not match who I am."
Even so, Carson attended Farrakhan's Million Man March in 1995 -- with a white friend, he says -- because of his interest in black men taking responsibility, rather than any aspect of Farrakhan's persona.
"I was one of the many people," Carson points out, "who didn't agree with everything he said. Still don't."
Muhammad Siddeeq, the father of a friend, helped Carson sort through things. He spent hours answering Carson's questions about Islam, the Nation and Farrakhan. "It was really touching for me," Siddeeq said, "because he was such a youngster and he was seeking clarification."
Andre confronted a choice many young black men considering Islam face, Siddeeq said: To follow Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, with its street credibility on social matters but record of divisiveness, or more universal Islamic teachings that promote tolerance. At crunch time, Siddeeq said, Carson chose tolerance.
"This man," Siddeeq said, "moved in the spirit of what was right and what was wrong and he made the right decision, at the right time."
Julia Carson and Louis Farrakhan go way back.
They were together, says Andre's wife, on the night Andre Carson was born. They were acquainted from Farrakhan's visits to meetings of the Congressional Black Caucus. When Farrakhan came to Indianapolis in 1997, Julia showed up at Farrakhan's news conference and gave him a hug. And as she lay dying in her Near-Northside home, Farrakhan called to wish her well.
Andre Carson knew little of the personal history. He said he had never met Farrakhan. Word of Farrakhan's phone call came to him from his grandmother's professional caregivers, and from Julia herself. As a grandson, Carson insists he was far from the final voice on her arrangements. But he still sought advice from Siddeeq, who said he must honor his grandmother's wishes . . .
So, in the end, he says he chose to honor his grandmother's wishes for her funeral. But matters grew more complicated for him when Farrakhan, while speaking over Julia's casket gave what essentially amounted to an endorsement of Andre as his grandmother's political successor. It was something he and his campaign staffers say he could easily lived without. It sparked letters to the editor referring to Andre as Farrakhan's emissary. Indianapolis political blogger Gary Welsh says Carson should repudiate Farrakhan's endorsement.
"If he disapproves of what he stands for then you wouldn't want his endorsement for the office you are seeking. And I've never heard that," Welsh wrote.
Jewish leaders initially were concerned as well. They asked for a meeting with Carson, heard his explanation of the invitation and accepted it, according to Marcia Goldstone, of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Carson met with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful Jewish lobby in Washington, which their spokesman, Josh Block, describes as "a good conversation."
Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the Farrakhan flap has been overblown because the minister is, in his view, largely irrelevant to most voters. He says the fact that the 7th Congressional District leans heavily Democratic should override other factors. But he said it will be interesting to sees if political opponents will try to make an issue of Carson's faith.
But polling last year by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that it already is. Pew's survey found that 45 percent of Americans say a candidate would be less likely to garner their support if he or she holds the Muslim faith.
Carson has tried to deflect this, saying his faith is merely a compartment in his life. And indeed his support for abortion and gay rights would be at odds with many Muslims, whose views on social matters tend to be conservative. He has said little about Middle East peace other than he supports a secure Israel and a two-state solution to peace process for Israel and the Palestinians.
He has spent the bulk of his adult life -- nine years -- as an officer with the State Excise Police, a plainclothes job enforcing alcohol, tobacco and gambling laws. He also spent nearly a year dealing with counter-terrorism efforts at the state Department of Homeland Security, where Carson says he worked as a watch supervisor in a job that worked with the FBI, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration on issues ranging from supremacist groups to threats of terrorism.