WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress. He’s a frequent member of congressional delegation trips to the Middle East. And after the regional protests fueled by an American-made anti-Islamic film, he has a two-pronged message to his colleagues in Washington.
First, the protests we are seeing do not reflect the opinions of the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East, and are in fact fueled by those who lost the most in the Arab Spring uprisings last year. Secondly, the United States should work to become more engaged in the region, including with its fledgling democracies, rather than become “skittish” because of the protests we’re seeing now.
Ellison talked to MinnPost about the situation in the Middle East and the way forward for the United States there. Here’s what he had to say, edited for space and clarity.
MinnPost: What do you think the proper response should be to this on behalf of the United States government?
ELLISON: Our policy ought to be continued engagement with each country in the region and the region at large. … If you look beneath the surface, what’s going on here is that the regime loyalists and religious extremists who have an undemocratic agenda, who want to impose a religious orthodoxy on everybody for the sake of power, are reacting against the success of the “small-d” democrats in overturning the autocrats across the region. … Libya, on the same day, the same exact day that this tragedy occurred with Ambassador Stevens, they had an election. And do you know what? Out of 200 parliament seats, 16 went to people who had a religious commitment to their party, the Islamists. And over 87 were the secularists. That outcome, that is reflective of the Libyan will. …
We don’t need to get skittish and afraid, “Oh they don’t want us.” Who is, “they?” There is no more than a “they” in Libya than there is in America. We have Tea Party people, we have Occupy people, we have Democrats, we have Republicans. They have diverse societies just like we do and they are in a power struggle and that’s we’re seeing taking place.
MinnPost: On “Meet the Press” on Sunday you said: “We have a lot of influence in terms of culture, in terms of just the way America is a democratic society. We should use that.” How do you think American democracy and the symbol of America can influence the Middle East, both in terms of flash events like these protests, and in the larger picture of the way the region is changing after the Arab Spring?
ELLISON: Let’s just start with Fulbright [Scholarships]. Out of all the countries in the Middle East, the country with the most Fulbright Scholarships is Iraq. How many do they have? One hundred fifty. This country has 29 million people. I think we can do better than that. I think we ought to have 150 Fulbrights in Bahrain, and then just go up from there. I think a country like Egypt, with 85 million people, there ought to be 20,000 Fulbrights. You start educating people at that scale in a country where half the population is illiterate, you’re going to make a big impact in that country going forward.
MinnPost: You’re saying we should engage the region more. There have been Republicans who have said it’s time to look at foreign aid, maybe we should cut foreign aid to these countries. I assume that you think that’s the opposite way we should go.
ELLISON: That is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. We need to engage more. I argue that the set of connections between the United States and the region of the Middle East, the problem with our relationship in the past has been that it’s been shallow and thin. It’s been basically based on three things: oil, Israel and terrorism. In everything we did, we looked at it through that prism. Can we get better access to oil or not? Where does Israel stack up, are you for them or against them? And if you were nice to them, we’ll give you money and if you were not, you’re the enemy. Then, terrorism. …
We need a richer set of connection points. When it comes to oil, yeah, we should be trading but we should be trying to develop more than just trading oil, we should be trying to develop finished products and work on good trade agreements that are mutually beneficial. When it comes to Israel, we should say, yeah, it’s great that the United States has a great relationship with Israel, but other countries need to be in a great relationship with us, too, on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. And in terms of terrorism, all the countries have security needs, we have security needs, we need to have real cooperation that is based on outcomes and results, not just, “Send me a bucket of money because I’m fighting al-Qaeda.”
MinnPost: A lot of Republicans have tried to point the finger at President Obama on this. How much has his foreign policy affected what’s going on over there? Should he take any blame for this or not?
ELLISON: No, he shouldn’t take any blame. … If you look at what happened to [Ambassador] Chris Stevens for what it is, it was a horrible tragedy, but look: Was 9/11 Bush’s fault? I don’t think it was, and I think it’s crazy to try and blame him or try and make a politics thing out of it. In 1982, when Hezbollah blew up the Marine barracks, was that Reagan’s fault? Was it Carter’s fault in 1979? We’ve got to stop acting like when life happens, it’s someone’s fault. It’s not.
Now it is their responsibility to respond correctly. I don’t fault Bush for 9/11 but I do fault him for the way he responded to it in some ways. I think what Obama needs to do is to stick and stay and understand that in dealing with this region of the world that has been marked with autocratic leaders for decades and decades, which we by and large supported, now they’ve decided that they’re going to move toward democracy, we can’t say, “Oh, when you were under a dictator we were for you, and now that you’ve decided to have democracy we’re against you.” …
And also, when it comes to foreign aid: the United States foreign aid budget is about .3 percent. It’s less than half a percent of our national budget. To make sure a whole generation of Africans doesn’t die of AIDS. To make sure that poor kids in India have water. To make sure that we’re promoting democratic reforms and fair elections. I think it’s well worth it. I think we should always try to be better at it, we should always try to maximize our dollar, we should always try to stop wastage, but to say that the richest country in the history of the world is going to allow Norway, France, Britain, Japan and China and Russia to engage in foreign aid and development but we’re not — that is an insane proposition and it doesn’t make any sense under any set of circumstances.
MinnPost: You visited this region earlier this year, you met with lawmakers and bureaucrats and party officials. How much interaction did you have with sort of the everyday citizen over there and what sort of feeling did you get about the energy in the region among just individuals?
ELLISON: I went down [to Tahrir Square] with some friends of mine who were born in Egypt and who emigrated to the United States and who happened to be in Egypt when I was there, and they’re fluent Arabic speakers. And we went on down to Tahrir Square at around 6 p.m. and one of them, who has questionable judgment, yells out, “Hey everybody, this is an American Congressman and he’ll answer every question you have.” So I start gathering a crowd. …
I talked to those guys until like 1 o’clock in the morning. No one threatened me, no one was out of pocket, and they asked me ton of different types of questions: How do we get people back to work? Should we have an Islamic country? Should we have a pluralistic country? Is the United States only concerned about Israel and doesn’t care about us? They asked me those questions into the night.
I honestly don’t believe most people in the Middle East hate America. … You don’t hear people going on and on about, “We just hate America.” It’s not true. … They admire our American democracy and they wish they had some of it and they kind of feel … that America kind of lets its Democracy stop at our water’s edge. And they do express disappointment.
And they give us way more credit than we deserve, they think we have power we simply don’t have. I don’t care what you say, its not America’s fault that 50 percent of Egyptians can’t read or write. You can’t blame that on us. You can’t say that in Pakistan, it’s America’s fault that 67 percent of the country can’t read or write. …
MinnPost: The leader of Hezbollah came out this week and said he wanted to see more protests about this film. He’s had some connections to the Assad regime in Syria; why are we seeing protests over this film, but we’re not seeing anything over what’s happening in Syria.
ELLISON: Assad loves this movie. [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad loves this movie because it take the heat off of him. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, he gets to stand up and act like he’s the defender of the faith now. … The other people who are calling for more protests are al-Qaeda. Of course they are. They are trying to manipulate people on the basis of religious zeal because they don’t want people to focus on what actually matters, like getting rid of Assad, like getting jobs going in their country, like getting trade like getting education. They don’t want none of that. They want you to be stupid, and they want to have their man in the pulpit on Friday afternoon, which is the prayer day in Islam, saying, “Obey, obey, obey. Shut up and obey.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry