With a few short words, Rep. Keith Ellison had just stunned a joint session of Congress.

Last March, Jordan’s King Abdullah II had concluded his address in the House chambers with the traditional Arabic salutation, “as-salaam ‘aleikum,” which means, “Peace be unto you.”

Ellison, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota and the first Muslim in Congress, instinctively replied, “wa ‘aleikum as-salaam” — “And to you be peace.”

The assembled lawmakers were hushed.

“It was as quiet as a church,” Ellison recalled. “I realized at that moment, wow, there is something about me that is a little different.”

In an America post-Sept. 11, Ellison is not just another freshman congressman. In just a few short months, he has become a congressional ambassador to the Islamic world. He has been recruited by the State Department to be a cultural envoy and has traveled to Syria with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

When he served in the Minnesota state legislature, Ellison said, his religion had not been a major issue. Now, his every move is scrutinized, sometimes unexpectedly. After his election in November, for instance, cable television host Glenn Beck asked him to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” And the question made waves throughout the Muslim world.


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