CAIRO: The next president of the United States must usher in a new era of dialogue in the Middle East, said the first Muslim member of Congress, Representative Keith Ellison.
“It’s very important we have a good open policy to build better relationships with people in the Middle East. It’s very important that the next president believes in dialogue, negotiations, opening up America, trying to build bridges of understanding, he said, “One of the reasons I’m an Obama supporter is I believe he will do that the best.
Ellison was speaking via video conference to attendees at the American embassy in Cairo Tuesday. Ellison is a participant in a promotional drive by the US State Department to improve America’s image worldwide, especially in Muslim countries and the Middle East.
“Because of our lack of being even handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a lot of people in the Muslim world have doubted our commitment to democracy, doubted our commitment in promoting civil and human rights. The invasion of Iraq has done real damage to the reputation of the US, he said.
The Congressman made clear he was aware of the complexities and diversity of the region. “It’s important to remember that most Muslims are not Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim, he said.
Ellison was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. He represents the fifth district of Minnesota, the first African-American to serve from this state.
He has since been followed by Andre Carson from Indiana.
Ellison pointed out he had been opposed to conditions imposed on aid to Egypt. “We must not put conditions on Egyptian aid. We must work closely with our friends in Egypt on the issues that are existing.
The topic under discussion in the video conference was Muslim participation in the upcoming elections and Ellison spoke at length about the Muslim community in the United States.
“The Muslim community is still in its infancy or embryonic stage in the US, he said.
Ellison said that there was nothing impeding Muslims from participating fully in American politics.
“The only barrier for a Muslim lobby to effectively come in the US is leadership and organization. There are no other barriers. No one is trying to stop Muslim Americans from participating in society, he said.
When asked whether Muslims can repeat the success of the Jewish lobby in the US, he responded, “There’s no doubt that there’s an active Jewish community in America. They want their views and opinions heard by the people who represent them. There’s nothing wrong with that, people should not feel threatened by that. Everybody needs to get active and involved, engaged and put their issues forward.
“Palestinian Americans have got to form an active lobbying bloc to help push the US government to advocate for Palestinian statehood. No one in America is going to help you; you have to help yourself. You have to organize your community to get something done, he added.
However, Ellison stressed that ethnic communities should not fall prey to tunnel vision and that they had a lot to offer American society at large.
“The Muslim community should not organize around issues that will only impact the Muslim community, he said, “Certainly they should promote some, but there are so many problems Muslims share with other Americans.
He added, “There are 27 million Americans with no heath insurance. The Muslim community is rich with people who have a lot of medical talent, doctors, nurses. A lot of them are Muslim. So the Muslim community should do something about this problem, since they have the skills in their community.
Ellison spoke of changes within American society, which was growing more tolerant and inclusive, but did not deny that there had been discrimination against Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Muslims have been victims of discrimination [in the US]. There is no doubt about it, he said.
Yet he added that the ideas with the most currency in the wake of the attacks were now relegated to the margins of political debate.
“The religious right in America is on the decline, Ellison said. “Their ideas are being discredited all over the place. People know that their version of reality was never right. Large numbers of Evangelical Christians are questioning the viewpoint of the religious right.
Ellison is a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and is a superdelegate for Barack Obama.
He said that Obama’s campaign was an example of Americans transcending their ethnic origins to advocate for a common, unified goal.
“Increasingly, people are coalescing around ideas and not just ethnic identity [as seen by the Obama campaign], he said.