The United States is accused of being the policeman of the world, but since no other nation has the appetite or power to resolve global conflicts, Washington has to step up to the plate. Rep Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, said he fully backs President Barack Obama on whatever action is needed to punish the Syrian regime after it used chemical weapons against its own people. “It’s not a sure thing, but if we get this through Congress, it will be three days of Tomahawk strikes on certain arsenals and instruments that the regime used to deliver the gas. Not the chemical weapons itself, because it may create a plume,” revealed Ellison, adding that if Damascus cedes control of its chemical arms, a strike could be averted. “The world doesn’t need this (war). A negotiated settlement is superior to strikes,” he told WPI journalists in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington.
The Minnesota Congressman warned that the world – and the Arab League in particular – also have an obligation to act to stop the slaughter. “We are an economic power; we have a higher degree of responsibility; but it shouldn’t only be the US’ responsibility. Every country in the world should stand up and say ‘you cannot commit a mass atrocity like that against the civilian population’. We don’t want war. But the United States is not starting a war...the war has been ongoing for the past two and half years. Why don’t you tell (Syrian President Bashar) Assad ‘no war’, since he’s the one making war,” Ellison argued.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accusations that the US favours one side over the other, Ellison agreed there was an inherent American bias towards Israel, but said Washington is on the side of the Palestinians too and is their biggest donor. “Maybe the US is not capable of mediating in this dispute. There’s evidence that the US is not an honest broker in this conflict, but if there’s another party that wants to do it, do it! But there aren’t too many other countries fighting to take up the mantle,” he rued.
Ellison warned that settlements and land grabs were ruining any chance of a two-state solution, but admitted Washington does not have much say. “Do we have the power to stop it? I wish we did. Israel is a sovereign state that does what it wants. I don’t buy that Israel is a client state of the United States.” Washington does stand up to Israel on some issues though. “We don’t agree with the annexation of East Jerusalem. We still don’t have an Embassy there. We don’t recognise East Jerusalem as Israel,” Ellison pointed out. “Israel wanted us to hit Iran, but we said we’re not going to do that.”
On the recent power grab by the military junta in Egypt, Ellison agreed that the US should have labelled it a coup. “Somebody sticks a gun in the face of the country’s first freely elected president and forces him out – how is this not a coup? Just because there were people on the streets supporting this move does not make it right,” he said. He said if Washington had called President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster a coup, it would’ve had to suspend aid to Cairo. “I don’t want aid to be sent to Egypt. It’s good we suspended the delivery of F16s and military exercises. Ordinary Egyptians are not benefiting from our money. It’s going for military purposes. Are we going to reward coup leaders?” he asked.
Ellison believes the US fears Egypt may abandon the Camp David accords or Washington might lose influence if the aid is halted. “I have neither affinity nor hostility for the Muslim Brotherhood. But they were democratically elected. Have another election and get rid of them. Egypt is a country that had been denied freedom of expression and basic human rights. It may take them a while to get used to it. I was in Cairo and I got the sense people were protesting on the streets because they could. What happened in Egypt is tragic,” he added.
Ellison also expounded on his Muslim faith and how his opponents used it as a stick to beat him with, to no avail. “I was elected to Congress in 2007. I didn’t stand to make a point. I am as I am and proud to be who I am. I wanted to talk about policies, but it was always about my religion. But I was elected from a place (Minneapolis) where 99 percent of the electorate is non-Muslim,” he said, sitting on his desk with a copy of the Holy Quran and prayers beads next to him.
Ellison is also the first African-American to be elected to the House of Representatives from Minnesota. “America used to be about race. It used to be a very powerful thing about life chances. But America was good on religion. We spread out our mats and hold congregation prayers every Friday in the Capitol. If I grow a long beard and wear religious garb, nobody would give me a second look,” he added. Andre Carson of Indiana, who was elected in 2008, is the second and only other Muslim in the House. “We doubled our strength. We’re taking over,” quipped Ellison.