One might imagine the ties between Minnesota and the Horn of Africa are tenuous at best, but the Midwest state has one of the largest Somali diaspora populations in North America, and Rep. Keith Ellison (from District 5, representing metropolitan Minneapolis) is one of Congress’ most prominent voices addressing issues that matter to both the United States and Africa.
Ellison, who in 2006 became the first Muslim elected to Congress, has spent much of his tenure forging closer relations with Middle Eastern and African countries, from Malawi and Mauritania to Liberia, Libya, and Sudan. He’s traveled to the region more times than he can recall, most recently to Somalia in February, as the first member of Congress to visit the war-torn nation in four years.
On that trip, he met with newly elected Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Mogadishu before traveling to Nairobi, Kenya, to visit the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture to gain a better understanding of what refugees uprooted by war and ethnic conflict face at home and abroad.
As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ellison serves as a progressive yin to neighboring Minnesota District 6’s Rep. Michele Bachmann’s conservative yang. Alongside super-rich members of Congress steeped in gun-lobby financing, Ellison stands apart.
The Twitter-savvy Detroit native is also one of the few members of Congress who doesn’t shy away from debating the Obama administration’s use of weaponized drones and actually encourages such debate by regularly participating in open public forums.
In a January Washington Post op-ed, Ellison wrote, “The heart of the problem is that our technological capability has far surpassed our policy.” In the piece, he cites a Stanford Law School and New York University Law School report that documents some 700 civilians (including 200 children) who have reportedly been killed by US drones since 2004, calling the deaths “unacceptable.”
In a March 2013 letter to President Obama, Ellison and five Congressional colleagues expressed concern about “vague legal boundaries” for drone activity and called for the White House to publicly present in an unclassified form its full legal basis for using drones.
This scrutiny comes as the United States is increasing its use of drones and special operations in a growing number of African countries. On February 22, in a 155-word memo simply titled Letter from the President—Concerning Niger, Obama informed Congress that he had deployed approximately 100 US military personnel to Niger to “provide support for intelligence collection [and] intelligence sharing.”
Recently Ellison spoke to Truthout by telephone from Minneapolis about drones, the growing US military presence in Africa, immigrant civil rights and the American media’s portrayal of Muslims.
Jon Letman: In January, you wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Time for Congress to build a better drone policy.” How was the piece received by your colleagues in Congress?
Rep. Keith Ellison: It had mixed reviews. Some people told me it was the administration’s prerogative and to just butt out, and even insinuated that if I did anything to try to restrain the US military’s use of weaponized drones, that might not be greeted as the most patriotic thing in the world. Other people said, “Spot on—you’re right.” It was a very mixed reception.
My point was to try to provoke a more in-depth conversation than we’ve been having. I was disappointed that we haven’t even really discussed this. The op-ed, as much as I was happy to write it and get it published, didn’t have the splash that Rand Paul’s filibuster had. Even though he and I agree on almost nothing, I was pleased to see him get attention for this really critical issue.
JL: Who supported your op-ed?
KE: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California). She thinks we have to move forward on drones and have transparency, due process, accountability and international protocols that are respected. And others—we had a good group around us, but not nearly enough. We need some committee hearings.
JL: In February, you again publicly called for Congressional hearings on the use of drones in warfare, but to date, there have been no hearings scheduled. Is that correct?
KE: I think there have been some hearings scheduled but I don’t have the dates off the top of my head. I [can] quickly get right back to you. (Ellison’s staff responded the next day with information about Senate Judiciary Committee drone hearings.)
JL: What more can Congress do to bring drone warfare to the forefront?
KE: I think one thing members of Congress can do is to hold community forums in our local districts to get citizens to start speaking up on this issue. I think that makes a big difference. I’ve had a couple of community forums—I had one just last week—and I encourage citizens to demand or set one up themselves and invite their member of Congress to attend.
JL: On February 22, President Obama informed Congress he was sending 100 military personnel to build a drone base in Niger. The New York Times reported the base could eventually house 300 Americans and be used for more than just surveillance. Have you made a statement regarding the Niger drone base?
KE: I can’t say I have. I was aware of it. I focus my attention more on weaponized drones in places where there has been loss of civilian life, so I have been thinking more in terms of Pakistan. But I think you’re right. I probably should think about how this drone technology is proliferating. Where it’s going is important, but the most important thing is, wherever it is, that we follow internationally accepted protocols, respect due process, human rights and the lives of civilians.
JL: I haven’t seen comment on the Niger announcement from anybody anywhere.
KE: Well, we probably should be, and you’re probably correct to point that out, and I think I better think seriously about what we are going to do about it.
JL: Do you think it’s a good idea to be building a drone base in Niger?
KE: I’ve got to be honest to tell you that to start talking about it without knowing anything is not that good of an idea. It does concern me, and I am disturbed by it, but I just want to know a little bit more before I start offering public comment.
JL: By not debating increased military presence in Africa is Congress lowering the threshold for US involvement and making our participation in armed conflict more likely?
KE: Now that you’ve posed that question to me, that’s the question I am going to be contemplating as I go through it with my staff, as I get the research and I start reading about the contours of this program and the implications, the question on my mind will be, What does this mean in terms of lowering the threshold for a greater conflict on the continent? I think that’s an entirely appropriate question.
JL: In 2011, the Obama administration announced a military, diplomatic and strategic realignment referred to as the “Asia-Pacific Pivot.” Are we also seeing an unannounced—kind of a shadow pivot, if you want to call it that—an “African pivot”?
KE: Obviously, this can be a double-edged sword. My most recent exposure to Obama policy in Africa was [in February 2013]. To see the US government, under Obama, recognize Somalia for the first time in 22 years, was good. To see that we’re going to build some real relationships that can benefit the Somali people is also good. So, in a way, an “African pivot,” depending on the shape that pivot takes, could be a very positive thing. But I think we’ve got to make sure that Africa is benefiting from the pivot.
On the other hand, I support the US supporting the international force in Somalia which drove out Al Shabab. I make no apologies; I supported that because the people of Somalia were living in hell under Al Shabab.
At the same time, there are other things to consider. We’ve seen cases in which Africans have been guinea pigs for drugs, markets for things like cigarettes. We’ve seen exploitation of minerals. But I don’t think we should be completely bound by the historic colonial role of the West in Africa. I think we can write new chapters, and I believe in that, but it’s also going to take the act of engagement of people on the continent themselves, and Americans who care about a just foreign policy.
JL: Even as President Obama pushes for gun control, we’ve seen the first American citizens killed by US drones in Yemen; most notably the 16-year-old Denver-born Abdulrahman al-Alawki killed in October 2011. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that up to possibly 237 children may have been killed by drones and other covert operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. As Americans, how can we reconcile this killing of civilians, especially children, in other countries as we claim to protect our own kids at home?
KE: We’ve got to have accountability, transparency, due process, protection for civilians. That has to be the hallmark of any US engagement abroad. Now, obviously it’s an irony, isn’t it? No doubt about it, but I read your question more as a statement because you are pointing out an irony, as we are flush in the middle of talking about how to protect our own kids from violence, warfare and gunfire, this is going on abroad and it’s clearly disturbing. The question is: What are we going to do about it? What I’d like to see us do is to put some sane, sensible rules around guns in this country, and at the same time, I’d like to see us put some sane, sensible rules around drones abroad.
JL: According to the Defense Department’s 2012 Base Structure Report, the United States has 666 military bases and military installations around the world. How many foreign bases and foreign troops do you think the United States should or would be willing to accept on our soil?
KE: Well, obviously zero.
JL: Let’s say some country, for whatever reason, wanted to protect its interests by having some kind of small base.
KE: Obviously, the United States would not tolerate any foreign occupation on its soil. And obviously we have military installations all over this world. The real question is not which country are we going to allow to occupy us; the real question is, how are we going to get our nation’s military to the point where it’s really looking out to defend and protect the American people rather than appear to be an expansionistic, hegemonic sort of entity.
Is having all those military bases good for the American taxpayer? Is it good for our diplomatic relations with the rest of the world? Is it fiscally sound? Does it make us safer, or not? Does it make us more of a target and more resented around the world? These are all excellent questions and I’m glad that you’re asking them, but at the end of the day, what are we going to do about it? I personally believe that we need to cut our nation’s military. I’m not talking about cutting soldier’s salaries, but I think that all the military bases we have around the world—some of these weapons systems, particularly nuclear weapons systems—do we really need all this? Whose interests does it serve? Does it even serve the American people’s interest? I have serious doubts about that.
JL: In January, when Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visited Washington, you said, “It’s now time to strengthen our relationship with Somalia based on mutual interests.” Can you talk about those mutual interests?
KE: I think that the people of Somalia have an interest in peace and security. So do the people of the United States. I think that the people of Somalia have an interest in economic prosperity for their people. So do we. [They] have an interest in environmental protection and sustainability. So do we. And the people of Somalia have an interest in civil and human rights for all, and certainly, so do we.
For the short term, I think Somalia has awesome potential as a nation. The people are smart; they’re creative; they want a better future for themselves and their children. [They] would like to move from being an emergency food aid recipient to at least being self-sufficient and, God willing, one day to be a donor to other nations. It wouldn’t be the first time a country has gone from dependency to independence to surplus. And they’d like to be not a national or international security problem, but actually be a security partner.
JL: What do you think the average American does not know or understand about Africa, but should know and understand?
KE: The thing Americans need to know about Africa is that the people there are exactly like them. They love their kids; they want to grow old in dignity. They want to work hard. They’re smart; they’re creative. We are bound in this web of mutuality. I think Americans suspect the reason Africa has problems is because Africans don’t have their act together or can’t get their act together, but it’s not really true. The whole world is deeply implicated in Africa’s problems, and some people think the only thing America can do is just get out and stay out. I don’t believe that the way things have been are the way things need to stay. What about a just foreign policy? I think we can do it. It might be naive, but I still believe we should try. I believe we have an obligation.
Another thing that I don’t think Americans fully appreciate enough is that you can’t give any country enough foreign aid to make it a middle-class country. We’ve got to help Africa find its way to be able to access commercial markets around the world. Not just extractive stuff; I’m talking about things they make or grow that we can use. Africa is full of a lot of really talented, creative people. That’s why I think we need to have more exchange in terms of education, technology-sharing—things like that.
JL: In one word, how would you characterize America’s relationship with Somalia today.
JL: What would you like to see it become?
KE: I’d like to see the relationship be interdependent.
JL: And you believe that’s possible?
KE: Yes. Not overnight. Maybe not even in five years. But I think it is possible.
JL: Your Congressional district is home to one of the largest Somali populations in North America.
JL: I read 70,000 in Minnesota and 32,000 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
KE: I wouldn’t doubt it.
JL: Whether migrants, immigrants or refugees, what challenges do Somalis face in Minnesota?
KE: I think if you were going to tell the story of Somali Americans, you would probably have to start not so much with challenges, but opportunities. There’s Hussein Samatar, he’s a good friend of mine. He was elected to the Minneapolis school board. Most of his voters were not Somali. They were white; they were black Americans; they were Latinos; they were all kinds—and some Somali.
The story of Somalis has been one of success, actually. Now there are challenges—linguistic challenges, cultural; there’s the challenge of any immigrant community losing track of its children as they mainstream into American life. But I think most of the story is triumph, success, people overcoming difficulties. Somalis, like most African-Americans, face racism. They also face religious bigotry because they are Muslim, by and large, but because like most immigrants, they’re willing to work really, really hard, many have been able to buy homes and start businesses. I think it’s really been primarily a story of triumph and success.
There are a lot of Somali immigrants in Norway, and the chief of police from Oslo came to Minneapolis to study how Somalis here have been so successful in the United States, in a cold, Northern climate. The answer was that they’re part of our society, our people. They’re Minnesotans and we treat them like that, for the most part. In any given situation, there are flowers and weeds. I like watering the flowers rather than the weeds.
JL: How have you seen civil rights for Muslim Americans and Muslims in America changing over the last decade?
KE: There’s a small, concerted effort to try to marginalize Muslims in the United States. It’s a well-funded effort. It’s a small effort, but they have yielded some results. They’re just people who write, speak and promote the idea that Muslims are threatening to America and should be marginalized and are dangerous to our country. They are the moral equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan, but they couch everything they say and do in anti-terrorism.
JL: Do you see an improvement in the US media’s portrayal of Islam today?
KE: I think the media is trying. I really do. When you talk about the mainstream media, I think there is an effort to reach out, and I think the media in some specific ways is trying to highlight the Muslim community in a way that is respectful and fair. Of course, you have to look at the foundation on which all this recent reportage has been done. We’re talking decades and decades of stuff like Crimson Jihad in the movie True Lies. We’re talking about decades of like, even the movie Back to the Future—you know, the Libyans are out to get Michael J. Fox. There’s a movie called Reel Bad Arabs; this particular documentary details how badly Arab and Middle Eastern and Islamic people have been portrayed in Western media for a long time.
You’ve got some good reporters like Neil MacFarquar and Andrea Elliot, and there are others who have been trying to do a good job—Soledad O’Brien, Anderson Cooper. They’ve done a good job. Even Wolf [Blitzer] has done a good, decent, respectful job—you can’t say that they haven’t. But they’ve done it against the backdrop of many years of the other stuff.
JL: In February, you had a rather robust exchange on FOX News with Sean Hannity in which you called his work “yellow journalism.” How do people like Hannity impact the public’s perception of issues, and do they have a legitimate role in the US media?
KE: Well, if you define “legitimate” as legal or authorized, yes, he has a legitimate role. Does he have a positive, legitimate role? I don’t think so. He’s certainly operating within the First Amendment, but I think he and others like him are promoting misinformation and stirring up hate and suspicion among Americans—which he is entitled to do—sadly.
JL: Are there any media resources you recommend for good, comprehensive, accurate, fair coverage of Islam or things related to the Middle East or Africa?
KE: I think that if you are going to be a well-aware person, you have to consume a number of news sources. I believe that you can avoid watching FOX News and still be extremely well informed. In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between watching FOX and being well informed.
JL: There was a study released about a year ago that said just that.
KE: I think if you can cut FOX out—I wouldn’t put that in my media diet—I think you’ve got to look at a number of diverse sources. Go ahead and look at MSNBC and the networks, go ahead and check out Democracy NOW! But also check out Bloomberg and read widely. It used to be hard to get any information. Now you can get it, but you just have to sort through the good and the bad. I think that the only way to be successful is to read widely.
This piece was reprinted with the permission of Truthout and the author. It is not covered by FPIF’s creative commons license.