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Ramadan 2009: America and Islam

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I had the distinct honor of being invited to address this year's Iftar dinner at the Pentagon, together with Ms. Farah Pandith, the State Department's Special Representative to Muslim Communities and Ms. Dalia Mogahed, of the Gallup Corporation. In attendance were over 125 American Muslims, members of every branch of the US military, and their guests from the White House, Congress and other government agencies.

The evening provided an opportunity for reflection on the changes that are occurring among American Muslims and in the US' relationship with Islam.

When I first came to this city, over 30 years ago, there were no Iftars, nor was there any formal recognition of Ramadan or the Eids by anyone, anywhere. I can recall going to the Reagan White House to propose a Presidential Eid message and being asked to write it. And then reminding them each year after that. The practice was broadened and institutionalized during the Clinton years, with President Bush adding an Iftar dinner, which he hosted each year of his presidency.

At this point, there are Iftars all over this city--the White House, State Department, Congress, National Security Agency, and more.

A primary factor accounting for this change and the growing recognition being given to Ramadan, is the presence and vitality of a growing Muslim community. There are thousands of Muslims serving in the US military and hundreds serving in every branch and agency of the US Government. It is not just that the US is heavily engaged in the Muslim World, it is that America's Muslim community is no longer invisible. Their presence, hard work and contributions to our country are being recognized. And with that, their faith is being appreciated. A tribute to American Muslims, yes--but also a tribute to the capacity of America to grow and change.

In many ways, this is a unique country. One of our most enduring qualities is our openness and the absorptive character of our national identity. Despite the persistent rantings of some bigots, no one religion, ethnicity or culture defines us or limits who can be one of us.

America possesses an alchemy, of sorts, with its remarkable capacity to transform people and itself. With citizenship you get more than a passport and the right to vote--you become American. And that is not all, because, in the process, America becomes changed. As each new wave of immigrants has come to our shores and become Americans, the very character and definition of the country and its culture has changed. Look at our food, listen to our music, see our style--in all of these are the threads woven from the many diverse peoples who have come to make up the rich and diverse nature of America today.

It is a lesson, some are slow to learn, but learn it they must, and learn it they do. Twenty-four years ago, for example, I was called to Dearborn Michigan, where the leading candidate for mayor in that year's election had just sent out a mailing to every household in the city. Blazoned across the front page were the words "The Arab Problem"--which he went on to describe as the danger posed by a large influx of Arab immigrants flooding the city, who don't share "our darn good way of life."

As that community grew and prospered and changed, the city and mayor changed, as well. Years later, I went to Dearborn to receive, from that same mayor, the official "masbaha" of the city of Dearborn. He opened the ceremony with greetings in Arabic, quoted the Qur'an and then spoke of the contributions Arab Americans had made to his city. (Note: in this year's Dearborn elections, five of the fourteen candidates for city council are Arab Americans!)

On another occasion, I was called to Michigan to deal with a crisis that had erupted in the schools during Ramadan. Muslim children who wanted to fast had asked to have a study period during lunchtime. Instead, they were made to sit in a corner of the cafeteria. Other children began to taunt them, some threw food at them. Fights broke out and some of the Muslim children had been suspended.

When I met with the Arab American children and their parents, one 14 year old girl told me that she had spoken with the principal and suggested a solution. The problem, she said, was that the non-Muslim children "don't understand our culture. Maybe we can help them learn about us." To which the principal responded "our job is to teach you our culture, not to learn your culture".

That 14 year old Yemeni American girl was right and her principal was dead wrong.

When America is at its best, it is growing, learning, changing and becoming more diverse and better.

And so, as I looked out at the Pentagon audience of young men and women, dressed in the uniform of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and saw the pride their commanding officers had in them, and heard the stories of their service and valor, I thought of that 14-year-old Michigan Muslim girl (who, incidentally, is now a grown woman teaching US military personnel about Arabs and Islam)--and of the America that is embracing Muslims, transforming itself and becoming new. And I was proud.

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