First Muslim Congressman Excels in Foreign Outreach

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The first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress has become a de facto American emissary, meeting with foreign policy makers both here and abroad to preach peace and democracy.

Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, had already developed an international reputation when he took his oath of office on the Quran last year. In his first term in office, he has built on that with congressional trips, State Department functions and internationally themed town hall meetings in his district.

"Peace is a key component of what I'm here to do," he said in a recent interview. "The overarching idea is that the world is safer if America has more friends, more understanding, more basis for communication.

"The world is safer if we in the United States Congress can help diminish the level of desperation of the desperately poor. The world is also safer if we can help strengthen democracies so that we don't have failed states."

Ellison's dovish foreign policy is just about the opposite of the Bush administration's, yet he has teamed up with the State Department on public diplomacy to tout what he calls "core" American values of democracy and human rights. He has done events with U.S. embassies overseas and speaks to visiting groups in Washington arranged by the State Department, such as a delegation of French Muslims last month.

"These guys are French citizens, born in France, raised in France, but talked about how they were having difficulty integrating into French society," said Ellison, who made international headlines last year by becoming the first Muslim member of Congress. "They were curious as to how it is that the American Muslim community is so highly integrated, and what they can do to facilitate that integration that we have here."

While the U.S. does not have all the answers, Ellison said, it does have some things to teach the world when it comes to religious tolerance. He referred to controversies in other nations about whether women should be allowed or required to wear Muslim head scarves known as hijabs.

"In America, you wear one if you want; you don't wear one if you don't want," he said. "It's left to the individual, and it works out fine."

One of the French participants in that meeting, Bakary Sambe, a lecturer and researcher, said that Ellison's ascension in U.S. politics helped shatter some French stereotypes of American culture.

"In France we used to consider the American society as very segregationist," he said in an e-mail. "Meeting Congressman Ellison was the first opportunity to (change) our opinion about America. I was very surprised to see a Muslim congressman in America which (is) viewed sometimes as an enemy of Islam and Muslims."

Sambe added: "His experience as Muslim and black in the same time convinced me that it is possible in America to build your own dream even if you are a Muslim."

Ellison has taken several trips overseas so far, most recently to Africa this summer, with a group called the House Democracy Assistance Commission, known as HDAC. Its mission is to promote the development of democratic governments through dialogue with foreign legislatures.

Besides visiting Africa, Ellison has traveled twice to the Middle East (including high-profile visits to Israel); Iraq; the Gulf region; Norway; Haiti; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and, during one ambitious trip, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Czech Republic.

He said people he meets on the trips almost always recognize him as the first Muslim member of Congress. An African general told him, "Didn't you swear in on the Quran? I gotta get a picture of you."