Remarks at the Annual State Department Iftaar Dinner

Hillary Rodham Clinton
   Secretary of State
Farah Anwar Pandith
   Special Representative to Muslim Communities 
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
September 15, 2009

MS. PANDITH: Assalamu alaikum. Good evening. And welcome to the U.S. Department of State.

My name is Farah Pandith and I am Secretary Clinton’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities. This new role and her vision to advance an agenda of partnership and engagement appropriate for the 21st century and seeds initiatives with Muslim communities from Seville to Sydney, Sanaa to Surabaya, is a historic first.

As a Muslim who immigrated to the United States at a young age, I have walked the typical American road. I have balanced my faith and my heritage and my love of my country without pause. I grew up in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the same place where I earned my degrees, where I advanced up the corporate ladder, where I learned about Islam, and where I attended mosque in Quincy, Massachusetts.

This town, as you may recall, is a birthplace to two American presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – as well as the man with the most famous signature in American history, the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock. The tiny mosque in Quincy, in an area rich in immigrant history, from pilgrims to Irish to Vietnamese, is one of the oldest in America. It was founded by dock workers who originally came from Syria and Lebanon and needed a place to pray.

Over the years, the community grew to include Muslims from dozens of ethnicities and heritages. And like the story of our country, the diversity made the community stronger. And like other immigrant stories, this ability to practice different faiths freely and share in traditions from far away lands, as well as adapt them to America, was very much part of my American experience.

My story is both American and Muslim, but it is not unique. Others in this room have lived it, too. I recall going to Eid prayers with hundreds of Americans dressed traditionally from the continent of Africa, the Caribbean islands, and the mountain ranges of Asia. I recall Iftars with my family where I would break my fast with a date, but then enjoy some pasta. It is America after all. It is what has made this country strong. We have the ability to incorporate so much of each other to make things our own. It is as American to have Pad Thai as it is a pizza.

As we have our Iftar together this evening in our nation’s capital, we are side by side with American Muslims who are the pioneers, activists, leaders of vibrant and diverse communities from Los Angeles to New York City. Foreign diplomats from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the subcontinent and East Asia. We also have trailblazers. Huma Abedin joined First Lady Hillary Clinton’s team in 1996. They have shared 13 years of Iftars together. (Applause.) Huma, an American of Pakistani and Indian descent, is a role model for so many young Muslims in our country and around the world. All of us here tonight are working to build better relationships, increase understanding, and leverage opportunities for dialogue to solve challenging problems that we all face.

This Holy Month of Ramadan provides us with these wonderful opportunities to reflect on the principles of a faith that is practiced by more than a billion women and men worldwide. As we fast, we are asked to think of the other, to be cognizant of the importance of respect for all, and to renew our efforts to do good deeds.

Sometimes we do these deeds alone, sometimes we do them with partners. Here in America, we have often partnered with others who may not be of our faith, but who have the same principles of humanity and the same desires to make our world stronger. This is, after all, a country that has always celebrated our religious diversity and freedom. When the earliest European settlers appeared off the coast of my home state of Massachusetts in the Mayflower, they were drawn to this land’s shores for the freedom to pray and worship as they please. Since then, generation after generation have poured into the country seeking similar freedom, and prayed in scores of different languages.

As I look out into this room, I see the efforts of so many whose work reflects passion and dedication of Muslims to open minds, whether through music, the group Native Deen and singer Kareem Salama are here with us tonight – (applause) – or through pluralism training – the InterFaith Youth Core is here with us tonight – (applause) – or through debate, the think tank Quilliam is here with us tonight – (applause) – or activism – Georgetown’s Muslim in the American Public Square is here tonight – (applause) – or through words – the authors of the American Muslim Teenager’s Guide are here with us tonight. (Applause.) No matter who you are, or the way in which you choose to help increase dialogue, reach forward to partner, or find new ways to effect positive change, I am honored to be in the same room with you. Your work is making a difference to all of us.

Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson held the first recorded Iftar with the Ambassador from Tunisia at sunset. It was not until 1999 that then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton – (applause) – broke new ground by hosting the first-ever Eid celebration at the White House. And now at sunset, during the holy month of Ramadan, Iftars are as common in Washington as an evening reception.

My home mosque in Quincy, and others like it all around America, reflect the diversity of heritages that make up Islam in America. Side by side with every sect and race, Muslims are breaking bread with others like we are today and are demonstrating what America is about: diversity, pluralism, the freedom of faith. American Muslims are an important key to our engagement with Muslim communities around the world. We want to hear your good ideas and be a facilitator and a resource to effect change.

I look forward to working with you. (Applause.) I would like now to introduce Secretary Clinton. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good evening and Ramadan Kareem. I am delighted to welcome all of you here for this evening’s Iftar . Actually, we started in 1996 and held the first Ramadan Eid celebration at the White House. Some of you were at that celebration, and it is wonderful to have you here tonight and to have so many others joining us. I want to thank Farah. I had the great privilege of swearing her in this morning and putting her to work on behalf of our outreach to Muslim communities. (Applause.)

This is an exciting evening for me. I think that American embassies have been holding Iftars for decades. Our diplomatic posts have held hundreds of events to celebrate Ramadan this year alone. And I am proud that we have so many Muslims serving in our Foreign Service and our Civil Service who are playing an important role in advancing our nation’s foreign policy interests and strengthening the bonds of cooperation and understanding with Muslims at home and abroad.

It is not just that this Department has benefited. The nearly 7 million Muslims in our country have enriched our culture, have made it stronger because of the contributions that many of you and others across America have given to us. Tonight’s celebration is just one way to underscore those ideals. It is, as Farah so eloquently said, an important demonstration of the ability of those of us here in our country to practice our religion without fear of persecution. It is enshrined in our Constitution. And we believe and will defend the freedom of religion.

Now, this time of self-reflection and clarity reminds us that the principles that are the hallmark of Ramadan – charity, sacrifice, and compassion – are also values we cherish as Americans. They guide us towards good stewardship of our families, our communities, our country, and our world. It is, as one of my wonderful young aides who Farah has already referenced – Huma Abedin – summed up in the words of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, that we need to be inspired by our leaders to fight poverty, injustice and hate with, “the weapon of the Prophet—patience and righteousness.” Well, that, to me, sums up much of what we celebrate tonight as we break fast.

Now, we recognize that the relationship between the United States and Muslim communities has at times suffered from misunderstanding and misperception. But we are committed to learning and listening; to creating bridges of understanding and respect; and building stronger bonds of cooperation. We believe that there is more that unites people of all faiths than divides us.

The Obama Administration will work to ensure that our communication, our partnerships, and our policies reflect that core belief. Because whatever God you pray to—or even whether you believe at all—we all need to work for the same goals: a world where our children can live together in peace and prosperity, and fulfill their own God-given potentials.

So tonight, let us recommit ourselves to achieving our common goals inspired by common values. And now, please enjoy your food. Thank you all. (Applause.)