Get the latest on President Obama and the First Family »

See photos of President Obama »

President Obama embarks this week on a long-anticipated visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in North Africa and the Middle East. It’s a region that, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corps. poll, 46 percent of Americans regard unfavorably. And with the President’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and block the release of detainee abuse photos, among other U.S. policies, many in the Middle East harbor a similar mistrust of the United States.

During his trip-particularly in a critical speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday—the President seeks to engage with global Muslim communities and bridge some of the differences that have divided them and the United States. caught up with Representative Keith Ellison, an African-American orthodox Sunni Muslim (and the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress) several days after he returned from a trip to Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. Here he gives his take on President Obama’s image in the Middle East, anti-Muslim sentiment at home, and what he thinks the President must do to strengthen the United States’ relationship with Muslims here and around the world.

ESSENCE.COM: You’ve taken four trips to the Middle East since December. What are some of the impressions that people have there of President Obama?
Obama’s wildly popular in the Middle East. There are bazaar marketplaces called souks, and in nearly every Middle Eastern souk I went to I found Obama T-shirts. Everybody talked about the new mood and atmosphere in the region, and people feel that the United States has made Middle East peace a priority. So there’s a tremendous amount of positive support for President Obama. But there is this other idea, that the signaling that President Obama has done must be met with substantive changes in U.S. policy. That is something we have yet to see happen, and so we have raised expectations. There’s a general feeling that it is now time to start really delivering.

ESSENCE.COM: The White House has described the President’s trips to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as an effort to reach out to the “Muslim World.” How do you feel about that term-what does it mean exactly, and doesn’t it lump diverse groups into one bloc?
It does, but the fact is, the Muslim world has certain points of commonality. In a post-9/11 America, there’s probably not any American Muslim who haven’t felt somewhat on the defense for being who they are. Let’s not forget what Colin Powell had to say during the campaign—”They’re attacking Senator Obama by saying he’s a Muslim, but the point is there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim.” So whether you’re an African-American Muslim as I am, or whether you’re an Indonesian, Pakistani or Saudi Muslim, there’s no question that there is a sting that we’ve all felt certainly since 9/11.

What the President appears to be doing is trying to expand and embrace the role of Muslims who believe in moderation, and thereby narrowing and isolating those people who believe in the use of violence to advance extremist ideology under the cloak of Islam. When President Bush would use terms like “Islamofascism” and “crusade,” what Muslims would hear was a general attack. For President Obama to now shift the game, and say we have important allies and friends throughout the Muslim world, is extremely important. I believe it’s going to enhance the security of the United States and bring forth greater peace in the world.


ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned the sting that you’ve felt in this country as a Muslim and the anti-Islam sentiment we saw during the presidential campaign. What can the President do to improve relations between American Muslims and the broader national population?
There’s a lot the President can do. He’s already done a lot, and I want to give credit to him for speaking in Ankara, saying things like “America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.” I think it is important that the President bear in mind that the United States is part of the Muslim world. There are 6 million Muslims in the United States, people who are doing everything from driving cabs to practicing medicine and even serving in Congress. I think it would be a good idea for the President to finally get around to visiting a mosque, something he has not yet done. I think it would be important for him to visit an institution that was founded by Muslims, like the UMMA Clinic in Los Angeles, which is a community health clinic that serves everyone who walks in. For him to continue to consult with Muslim Americans is a good idea, and it’s something I think the President could do more of.

ESSENCE.COM: Given that many residents of majority-Muslim countries feel that U.S. policy has wronged and unfairly targeted them-from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Guantanamo-how can Obama help bridge that divide in a way that really resonates with people in those countries?
What the President needs to do is convert the goodwill that he has garnered into policy directives. You need to go from “Let’s get together based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” to “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s how we’re going to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here’s how we’re going to settle down Afghanistan and withdraw from Iraq. Also, here’s how we’re going to promote democracy and human rights throughout the Muslim world.” Because let’s be honest-as the Muslim world turns to criticize the U.S., countries where Muslims are the majority have work to do. Where’s the free press in the Muslim world? How are women’s rights doing? How is respect for religious minorities doing? There’s got to be some shared responsibility. I think the President’s reaching out, and the Muslim world needs to reach back.

ESSENCE.COM: The President has been urged to address Egyptian human rights abuses during his visit. Do you think he should, and if so, how can he best navigate that?
I don’t think it’s the best strategy to specifically identify issues within Egypt, but that doesn’t mean he can’t talk about general human rights issues in the Muslim world that would also apply to Egypt. This should not be America apologizing. It should be America saying, “We have made some mistakes over the last eight years. You have some improving to do as well. Let’s move forward in a positive way that doesn’t shame or blame anybody but recognizes that we all have to make a higher quality of life for all of our people.”