WASHINGTON – Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, had little good to say about President Bush’s foreign policy when he ran for office in 2006.

Now, two months into office, the Minnesota Democrat has plans to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top State Department officials to talk about showcasing his story as part of their public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world.

“Hey, my country first. We can work out our political differences later,” said Ellison, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war. “I’ve said I’m willing to do whatever I can to make some friends for America.”

Building on the international cachet he’s built since taking his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, Ellison has been profiled three times by the State Department’s overseas press bureau. On Monday he did a Voice of America interview from his office, where an American flag was placed conspicuously behind his desk for the cameras.

He’s scheduled to follow up Thursday in a teleconference with Karen Hughes, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy. The teleconference has been tasked by the White House to promote American values and confront ideological support for terrorism around the world.

Muslim commentators and administration officials say that, whatever controversy Ellison has engendered at home, he can help America’s image abroad, especially in the Arab world.

“It’s a very positive development,” said Voice of America’s Faiz Rehman, a Pakistani native and senior political producer. “He is the most famous freshman congressman in the world.”

Ellison’s swearing-in in January turned him into one of the hottest journalistic commodities on Capitol Hill, particularly for the foreign press, which had to be ushered out of his office after he took his oath of office to make room for home-state news crews.

Now the State Department’s public diplomacy arm is swinging into the act.

Ellison has now been featured in a series of articles written for foreign dissemination by the Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. The most recent, published last month, highlighted the diversity of his constituents in Minnesota, ranging from Swedes and Norwegians to “the largest Somali immigrant community in America.” . . .

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations, compared Ellison’s overseas appeal to that of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in Vietnam.

“Muslims around the world know that America has a tradition of religious tolerance,” he said. “They’d like to see us live up to that tradition.”


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