WASHINGTON - There was no fanfare, no press release when Keith Ellison made the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca last week.
"We weren't really trying to turn this into a political thing," said the Democratic congressman from Minneapolis. "This is just me trying to be the best person I can be."
Downplaying his role as the first member of Congress to make the Hajj, as the pilgrimage is known, Ellison called the experience "transformative."
"It really didn't have anything to do with me being a congressman," said Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Nonetheless, his trip attracted interest in the media and in the blogosphere. While some of the commentary has been positive, Ellison has been taken to task for missing the House vote on the auto bailout for his native Detroit. His spokesman has said Ellison hadn't expected the lame-duck session and noted that he'd earlier told House leaders of his plans. The trip also sparked some anti-Muslim sentiment.
Ellison traveled to the Saudi Arabian city along with about 3 million fellow believers, a journey that every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to make once in their lifetime.
By partaking in the Hajj -- a weeklong series of rituals that honor an ancient pilgrimage made by Abraham, a revered figure in Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- Ellison said he learned a lot about the similarities among the followers of a religion comprising people from many parts of the world.
"It was an amazingly transformative experience. I'll never forget it," he said. "Three million people, from every inch of the globe, all getting along together in a world where there's a lot of turbulence."
Along the way, Ellison said, he met a wide array of people, from the vice president of Bosnia and a former Saudi deputy oil minister to humble street cleaners. But on Hajj, everyone is treated the same.
"Everyone's just a pilgrim, a Hajji," he said. "You can't look at someone's shoes and tell what economic station in life they're at, because everyone's wearing sandals."
Despite his wishes to keep a low profile in Saudi Arabia, Ellison said word leaked out that he was a U.S. congressman. People recognized him from TV and newspapers in the Middle East, where his first election in 2006 was big news.
"I didn't want to turn it into a politics thing, but people are people," Ellison said. "They're going to talk about what's on their mind."
He said people he met on the journey were excited about the election of Barack Obama and what it might mean for U.S. foreign relations.
While he consulted the State Department over any potential danger, Ellison said, he wasn't worried about his safety. He traveled mainly with fellow members of his Minneapolis mosque; no security guards went along. His expenses were paid for by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
Ellison said he'd like to make the journey again with his family. His wife is not a Muslim, but their four children are being raised as Muslims.
"[My kids] are excited about it and want to know about it," Ellison said. "Of course, I brought them back some gifts and trinkets, and about 800-and-some pictures."
Mitch Anderson • 202-408-2723