Ellison talks up U.S. in Muslim circles

The State Department is turning to Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, to help burnish the country’s image in the Muslim world – despite Ellison’s outspoken criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “I plan to talk to people in the State Department and anywhere I can to help try to improve America’s image in the Muslim world, make friends for our country,” Ellison, a freshman Minnesota Democrat, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I want to help win friends for our country and to isolate true enemies.” In articles which included translations into Arabic and other languages, Ellison has been profiled by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, which is distributed in foreign countries. He has meetings scheduled at the end of the month with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and with Karen Hughes, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy; Ellison spoke with Hughes by phone a few weeks ago. A spokeswoman for Hughes, Rena Pederson, said that Hughes has talked to Ellison about being a “sounding board.” “She does believe Muslim Americans can be a bridge to reach out to the rest of the world,” said Pederson. “She has talked to Congressman Ellison, because public diplomacy is not Democratic or Republican – but American. We have a mandate to provide a balance of views.” Ellison, who has called for an immediate withdrawal of military forces from Iraq, said he didn’t find it difficult to reconcile his criticism of the administration’s foreign policy with his promotion of American values. “Look, you know, administrations come and go,” he said. “But the basic core message of this country – which is tolerance, human rights, opportunity – does not change, regardless of who happens to be the president.” “And just because sometimes administration policies don’t clearly reflect that – as in the Iraq war – doesn’t mean it’s not still a core value of the American people,” Ellison added. Ellison’s outreach with the State Department was first reported by McClatchy News Service. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil rights group, said that anything that can help the U.S. image in Muslim countries should be tried. “I think Keith Ellison is in a unique position to demonstrate the true nature of religious diversity in the United States to the Muslim world,” Hooper said. “I don’t think the State Department will ask him to endorse foreign policy – it will be a more generic, pro-American endeavor.”