Ellison spreads word in Egypt about benefits of U.S.-style democracy

Rep. Keith Ellison hasn”t always seen eye-to-eye with the Bush administration on the Iraq war and other Middle East policies.

But on Tuesday, Ellison”s was the face on a large television screen inside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where a group of Egyptian journalists and academics gathered to see the best-known U.S. congressman in the Arab world.

The Minneapolis Democrat, the first Muslim-American in Congress, was speaking — sometimes in Arabic phrases — via a live video hook-up from the House recording studio on Capitol Hill.

“Let me say, As-salam alaikum [Peace be upon you],” he began.

The hourlong conference was designed by State Department officials to promote democracy, part of an initiative that has made use of Ellison”s story almost since he was sworn into office last year by taking a ceremonial oath of office on Thomas Jefferson”s Qur”an.

Ellison has been happy to oblige, viewing such encounters as teaching moments for audiences on both sides of the divide.

“The value is bridging gaps of cultural understanding,” he said after the session, which followed his appearance in March on a prime-time Egyptian talk show during his fifth trip to the Middle East.

“As the first Muslim-American member of Congress, he is widely known here but has not had much interaction with the Egyptian media,” said Margaret White, an embassy spokeswoman. “We wanted to give Egyptian journalists a chance to have a dialogue … to discuss Muslim-American participation in American political life.”

Underlying message

Ellison”s message: Political life for U.S. Muslims is better than many might suppose in the Arab world, where America”s image has taken a beating from the images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

One of the first questions was about whether Ellison”s congressional oath-taking with the Qur”an was a “violation of the American Constitution.”

Question after question seemed to boil down to this: Can American society accept Muslims?

“We”ve grappled with issues of race and diversity since the beginning of the nation,” said Ellison, recounting the history of African-American slavery and European immigration. “It”s always been tough breaking into American society, and today is no different.

“But I will tell you this,” he said. “America is getting better, is getting more tolerant and inclusive of all people.”

As evidence, he pointed to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, whom Ellison supports, as well as his own run for office from a district that contains far more Lutherans than Muslims.

Ellison”s warts-and-all assessment of life for American Muslims included acknowledgments of discrimination. But most Americans, he said, “are citizens of goodwill.”

“Nobody standing in way”

Ellison said the only things in the way of greater Muslim influence in U.S. politics are leadership and organization.

“Nobody is standing in the way,” he said.

In response to a question about the vaunted Jewish lobby in the United States, which sponsored one of his trips to the Middle East, Ellison said: “They want their views and opinions heard by the people who represent them. There”s nothing wrong with that.”

He encouraged Palestinian-Americans and Muslims to do the same.

“America has a lot of different points of view, and we are free to express our various points of view,” he said. “I can criticize George W. Bush, and nobody”s going to come through my door and arrest me for doing so.”