It is pouring rain outside -- but people do not seem to care. Though wet in some cases, there is a lot of laughter. On the eighth floor of the Department of State, there is an image of a professional basketball player on a screen and his quote "What do you stand for? Are you a follower or a leader?" People smile. They have seen his face many times, and they know him and what he represents. After all, Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the best athletes in America. The screen changes. It is a picture of Muhammad Ali, his arms open, his head tilted back with his mouth wide open. Behind him is a clear blue sky. His quote reads "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." He is an American icon and one of the most famous athletes in the world.
As the guests watch, images of super-stars, such as Olajuwon and Ali, are intermingled with the faces that our guest may not yet know: Omar Kaddurah, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Noor Amr, to name a few. There is curiosity and expectation in the room. Nearly 70 members of the diplomatic corps, 40 members of Generation Change and 150 others from civil society, academia, government and business are enjoying the reception. The guests are wearing national dress as well as formal suits and dresses. The participants look forward to seeing the guests of honor and their host, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. They know that Secretary Clinton's Eid reception honoring American Muslim athletes is a first, and many have already emailed me to say "What a great idea!"
While they are waiting, the guest admire the Ben Franklin Room (yes, there is an antique oil painting of him at the far end of the room). The tables are appointed beautifully with rich, fall colors that come though in the bouquets of carefully paired pomegranate, berry, and florals. It is a festive occasion -- it is the celebration of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims around the world refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. To mark the end of this fasting period, Eid is celebrated in many ways -- but at the heart of all celebrations is food, family and friends.
The State Department has been hosting official events during Ramadan since 1998. In addition, our embassies overseas have many different types of gatherings during Ramadan -- whether an Iftar (the breaking of the fast after sunset) hosted by an ambassador or special programming, such as the American hip-hop group Native Dean that toured through Indonesia during the first part of Ramadan. Honoring this special month is a tradition that brings communities together, and our gathering in the Ben Franklin Room is no exception.
Secretary Clinton hosts a diverse group of athletes from across America -- both professionals and amateurs. She is joined by fencers and runners, weightlifters and basketball players. She also invites a foreign guest, Amir Khan, the world's lightweight welterweight champion! It is fun to see these champions side-by-side with Secretary Clinton, a champion in her own right. Whether celebrating the anniversary of Title IX or launching the State Department's Women's World Cup Initiative to empower women and girls through sports, she has demonstrated that athletics make a difference both on and off the field.
Secretary Clinton speaks directly to her athlete honorees in her remarks, saying "Young Muslims around the world look up to you as heroes. You inspire them to dream big and work hard. And when all Americans take pride in your achievements, it underlines what is best in our nation."
She also speaks about the many ways the Department of State includes sports as part of our diplomacy efforts. As I stand on the podium with the Secretary, I look out and watch the faces of the many people gathered around the room. People nod and clap as she recognizes the achievements of her special guests and the importance of remembering that they represent the best of America. She gets a great response from the crowd when she talks about the documentary film Fordson, which will premier later this week in theatres across America but was screened at the Department of State before the reception. The movie chronicles the Fordson Tractor Football team in Dearborn, Michigan, who practice from 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. during Ramadan, so they can continue to fast in the Islamic tradition. (Earlier in the day, the filmmaker, Rashid Ghazi, went to a D.C. Public School to speak to the students about Ramadan and the movie.)
As Secretary Clinton speaks about the fact that this riveting story from Fordson demonstrates commitment to your team does not mean giving up your personal beliefs and spiritual identity -- and that the players showed the world that in America religious principles do not get in the way of the pursuit of excellence and achieving dreams.
As she finishes her formal remarks, Secretary Clinton invites Ephraim Salaam, an NFL offensive tackle, and Kulsoom Abdullah, an amateur weightlifter, to talk about their experiences as American Muslim athletes. In a moment that makes the room laugh, Secretary Clinton steps forward and tries to move the microphone higher so Salaam does not have to bend. Salaam speaks about fasting each Ramadan from the time of his childhood through full pre-season workouts at the NFL. He says, "You don't know what tough is if you haven't fasted during a training camp workout." He also talks about the pride he feels being both American and Muslim, a sentiment that is shared by Abdullah, who also speaks about her personal story. As the remarks end, the images of the athletes continue on the screen. There is a picture of Abudullah holding up her weights and the quote: "Probably the only Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering who can deadlift 111 kilos."
The stories of these athletes tell a powerful American story -- no matter your religion, race, or background, no matter if you are a new immigrant or from a family who has been here for centuries, you are judged on your ability to perform. On a playing field, it is only excellence and skill that matter. This is one of the reasons why sports have always been an integral part of America's fabric. Athletics remind us all that with hard work and willpower we can overcome any obstacle. They teach us about leadership and the importance of teamwork to achieve a common goal. Whether overseas or on American soil, sports bring people together.