Celebrating Iftaar at the State Department

Posted by Farah Pandith
October 10, 2007
2007 Iftaar Celebration at the State Department

Farah Pandith, Senior Advisor for Muslim Engagement to the Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, writes about celebrating Iftaar at the U.S. Department of State October 5, 2007.2:03 pm The currency in Washington is information. What do you know? Where did you get it? How authentic is it? Thus, it is no different in the Department of State where on this Friday afternoon I was getting calls from inside and outside government from people interested in learning who had been invited to Secretary Rice's annual Iftaar. I have not seen the final list yet this afternoon, but it is always of interest to some. Who are the selected ones and why were they picked? But it is "close hold" for now... so good luck to those who keep calling to see a name they recognize. Hey, maybe we can start a rumor? Did I just see Jay-Z walking down the hall?

3:30 pm (For those of you who don't know -- an "iftaar" is the breaking of the fast. We are almost at the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan and for those observing the fast; you do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset each day for 30 days. For almost a decade, the US government has hosted Iftaars in various ways. Last night (Thursday), President Bush hosted his annual Iftaar at the White House. Tonight, Secretary Rice will be doing the same. In fact, our Ambassadors in many countries host Iftaars as well. Someone told me this afternoon that in the Europe and Eurasian region alone there have been 25 Iftaar dinners hosted by our Ambassadors thus far.)

Last year the U.S. Department of State honored Muslim women, this year the special guests are educators. I still haven't seen a final list of acceptances though....

4:56 pm I am running late for a meeting, but have just seen the final list and it is going to be a really diverse crowd of American Muslims from all over the country as well as guests who are visiting from around the world. No Jay-Z...

6:14 pm Leaving for the 8th floor to join the Iftaar which should be in full swing at this point.

8:47 pm I just got back from the Iftaar. It was great. I love that it was all about the importance of education. Secretary Rice highlighted the role of education and specifically used an example within Islam -- Muslims believe that that angel Gabriel said the word "iqraa," the Arabic word for "read" or "recite" -- to the Prophet Muhammed. Even the menu cards were true to theme, they were all printed with the quote "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave -- The Prophet Muhammad” in both English and Arabic.

I arrived to find that they had opened the balcony doors and guests were mingling outside looking at a perfect fall sunset. I ran into Dr. Yayha Basha, who had accompanied me and two other American Muslims on the first "Citizen Dialogue" program to Europe in the spring of 2006, where he talked about Islam in America to hundreds of Muslims in Denmark, The Netherlands, and Germany. I believe he flew in from Detroit for the event this evening. I saw Assistant Secretary David Welch surrounded by a group of folks, and as I passed him I spotted a friend, Saeeda Mirza, who is doing great things in New York with an NGO called One Nation. You've got to see what they are doing -- go to One Nation for All. They are bringing American Muslims together to make a difference -- pushing back against stereotypes, pulling together voices of Muslims who condemn terrorism, etc. But, truly, the best part of this Iftaar for me was to see the magnitude of smart, hard working Americans who are building stronger communities through education and knowledge. I introduced Assistant Secretary Dan Fried to Saeeda, as I know that he is interested in what is taking place in Muslim communities in Europe and within the United States. Saeeda and Dan hit it off -- when I left they were talking about a place they both know in upstate New York where she grew up.

Though there is a great deal of talking, laughing, and people watching at the start of the event, it quieted down when Imam Magid of the All Area Dulles Islamic Center called the prayer. Some folks left to pray in a nearby room and the rest of the group continued to mingle and eat fresh dates and dried figs as they broke their fast.

I was keen to meet guests and learn about what they are doing. Take Shaista and Ray Mahmood, for example, who were sitting at a nearby table. They have done dozens of events to bring the interfaith community together. They are hosting an Iftaar at their home for Secretary Chertoff, and last year they did one for UnderSecretary Karen Hughes and brought her on Eid to a local mosque so she could experience that celebration. Or Mohamed Elibiary, co-founder of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, who raised $100,000 dollars in private capital for scholarships for American Muslims. He is using that money to build an endowment for a program that will support young American Muslims who are interested in public service. Or Chris Seiple, who is President of the Institute for Global Engagement and is doing excellent work to build bridges of understanding in a wide variety of ways.

For these Americans, the importance of coming to an Iftaar hosted by the US Department of State was significant. They told me that they were proud that we were doing it -- and I am too. Several people, when I told them I was asked to do a blog on the event, said the attention to education and its value to Muslims will be noticed in the Muslim community. One guest said that he was amazed that someone had taken the time to make the posters with quotes from the Quran that lined the hallways. All were about the importance of education.

For many of the guests, highlight of the evening was a chance to see and -- in some cases meet -- Secretary Rice. Her remarks can be read on Department of State website . She singled out examples of notable Muslims who have made a difference to the world because of their contributions in science or due to their courage to stand up for democracy.

I was pleased when I looked around the room and saw the diversity of professions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. When Secretary Rice mentioned that there were Muslim high school kids who were visiting from other countries in attendance, there was surprise on many faces. I was surprised too -- how cool is that? "Hi, I went to America and I broke the fast with the US Secretary of State!"

Whether a high school kid, someone like Shahid Javed Burki (a well- known development economist) who was at my table, or a Hill staffer, the opportunity to take part in the Iftaar tonight was a great experience. Showing respect for Islam in this way has become an American tradition.

I've gone to more than 35 cities in Europe over the course of the last seven months as Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary Dan Fried and the question I get most often is "what is life like in America." Tonight, in its symbolism and its message, it was the best of America.



Jack P.
Maryland, USA
October 11, 2007

Jack in Maryland writes:
Farah, I really enjoyed reading your piece. I am touched by the fact that at State Department you commemmorate a muslim festival in such a remarkable way. Your description is very poignant.

Mason J.
California, USA
October 11, 2007

Mason in California writes:
Could you please comment on the Department's Christmas celebration?

Thank you.

Pennsylvania, USA
October 11, 2007

Thomas in Pennsylvania writes:
It would be interesting to see a complete calendar of religious/cultural observations by the State Department or the White House. I can see Church/State Establishment issues if only one or even a select few religions are recognized. On the other hand it is nearly impossible to separate culture from religion and intercultural communication is not aided if one party refuses to recognize such a major portion of the other culture.

This was a thought provoking post. Thanks.


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