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R.N. Burns & Karen Hughes At Iftaar Dinner

Press Availability
Office of the Spokesman
Washington, DC
October 19, 2006

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes At The Annual State Department Iftaar Dinner

The Benjamin Franklin Room

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening to all of you and welcome to the State Department, welcome to this beautiful Benjamin Franklin Room and Ramadan Kareem. Imam Arafatt, I want to thank you very much for your beautiful and moving invocation. Your words tonight and your presence remind us of the spirit of Ramadan, the celebration of community and of faith that characterize an Iftaar dinner. I know you're extremely busy. I know that you're flying off to Switzerland tonight to observe Ramadan and Iftaar again tomorrow, so we thank you so much for your presence here this evening.

And ladies and gentlemen, I'm very pleased to be your co-host this evening along with my friend Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes. And both of us would rather not be speaking tonight. We wish that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be speaking right now, but I think all of you know because of the North Korean crisis she left Washington yesterday. She is now in Japan. She's going to be en route to Korea and to China and to Russia. But she sends her very best wishes to all of you. She welcomes you here in this holy month of Ramadan and she wishes you Ramadan Kareem as well.

I am very honored to be with you. I know that tonight we're recognizing women who have distinguished themselves in the service of Islam and I want to welcome all of the women who will be honored this evening and welcome all the members of the Diplomatic Corps and all of our fellow members of the State Department who are with you.

It is appropriate that we honor women and Karen will be speaking to that theme in just a moment. But I thought I would want to just single out one of my friends in particular. Back in the last century, the 20th century -- (laughter) -- when I was a very young and inexperienced diplomat going out to my first Foreign Service assignment, I went to Cairo and I was a consular officer. And a very kind and a very smart woman who worked at that embassy took me under her wing and she taught me how to be a consular officer. She taught me how to act and I followed her example of dignity. And she was a woman we held in very great respect and today's a big day for her. She's here with us. Her name is Mrs. Amany Osman, and she was honored today by the State Department as the outstanding employee of all of our embassies and consulates in the Middle East region. And if it's okay with you, I'd like to ask her just to stand for a moment, Mrs. Amany Osman, and to congratulate. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we gather here tonight in the cause of advancing peace and tolerance and prosperity and freedom and faith. And tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan, Laylat al Qadr, the night of power, the night traditionally marking the first revelation of the Holy Koran. And I thank you very for spending part of this evening with us.

I remember very distinctly the first night that I experienced Ramadan and an Iftaar dinner. I was in West Africa in Mauritania in 1980. And I remember distinctly this beautiful evening outside the city of Nouakchott in the Sahara Desert and I was impressed then as I am still impressed by the simplicity of Iftaar, by the fact that so many elements of the Muslim tradition are like my own religion, Catholicism. You have a collective strength in your community. You have sincerity in your belief, a profound belief expressed in the simple act of fasting during Ramadan and you observe traditions and you honor your Prophet.

While most of us clearly see the connections we have among our different religions not everyone does. We gather unfortunately at a time of war and terrible violence and suffering in many parts of the Muslim world. Some talk about a clash of civilizations as an explanation for this violence. They say that somehow cultural or religious differences are immutable or that they will inevitably lead us to conflict. I respectfully disagree.

The most bitter conflict in the world today is not between Islam and Christianity or Judaism and atheism or Buddhism and Hinduism or any other religion. The conflict instead is between extremism and intolerance, present in all of our countries, including my own unfortunately on the one hand, and on the other the forces of tolerance and of hope and of peace. All of you, the accomplished Muslim women and men in this room tonight, are at the vanguard of this dichotomy. You are the forces of tolerance. You reach out to the Muslim community and to the non-Muslim community in the United States of America and abroad to further connect us as men and women, as mothers and fathers and as servants of our respective religions.

We Americans take great pride in our Muslim community. The Muslim community here represents 80 different countries and there are millions of Muslims in this country and they worship at over 1,200 mosques. And this growing Muslim presence in our country is a great and welcome change. So I hope that all of you feel that sense of welcome in our country and that sense of tolerance.

We thank the Muslim community in our country for teaching us about the great religion of Islam. We still have much to learn. But it is true that some of the most powerful thinkers in the past century: Mahatma Gandhi; Martin Luther King Jr.; the Agha Khan; the Dali Lama, very different people but they shared one critical trait in common. Their actions were strongly rooted in their own religious beliefs, but they learned and grew from the teachings of other religions and may it be so in our own country. It's learning about each other and standing up for each other, by being voices of tolerance and understanding, it's then that we'll overcome the challenges of extremism and of those who seek to distort and exploit religion, any religion, for their own particular design. We don't believe the extremists will succeed, because we know that there is nothing irreconcilable between Islam and America. We know that as we sit together tonight from our different backgrounds we share a common faith and that faith is in the future. And the future must be built on tolerance and on peace.

I would just like to say that at this very difficult time as we look across the world and look at all the conflict of the world and all the misunderstanding among the peoples of the world, that we sometimes forget to talk about that essential human dream of peace. And may it continue peace to motivate all of us in government and in public life -- peace is our ultimate human ambition and it is the greatest reflection of what must unite all religions in this great country of ours, the United States, but also all around the world.

Thank you so much for being here tonight. Thank you for listening and we look forward to a very good and positive evening together. Thank you.

(Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: Good evening, Ramadan Kareem. Thank you so much Under Secretary Burns, my friend here at the State Department, Imam Arafat, thank you. I loved your phrase,"giving and forgiving," I think that captures the spirit that we're about here tonight, your excellencies in the room. And as I look around the room, I have to say that it's almost a celebration of my first year here because I see so many of you that I have met and consider now not only friends, but also advisors and so it's wonderful to see so many of you that I've had the opportunity to work with.

It's a special honor to break bread with you tonight on Layla al Qadr which Muslims throughout the world venerate as the holiest night of the year, the night of power and revelation. This night that we're sharing together I saw as described in the Holy Koran as a night which is better than a thousand months. So I'm especially pleased to spend the thousand months here with you. I hope it won't feel quite like that long, but -- (laughter) -- tonight is also known as the night of forgiveness when good deeds are performed. And tonight we're honoring the good deeds of our guests, many of whom were invited tonight in recognition of their service and their many contributions to other people.

This evening we're especially celebrating the many contributions of Muslim women, past and present. Our guests tonight are history makers and I unfortunately can't name all of you because I would have to name all of you. So many women of great achievement in academia, government, faith-based institutions, the arts and civil society, both here and abroad. I also want to recognize the mothers in the room because the example that you are setting for your children is planting the seeds of good deeds for the next generation.

Tonight we remember and honor the many women throughout Islamic history who have led by example. As so many of you know, Islam granted legal status and protections to women long before many other cultures did. Women including Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad's wife, a successful businesswoman herself and her daughter Fatima are examples of the rich heritage of leadership by Muslim women.

Recently I was told a story from the time of the prophet about a famous man who expressed a desire to seek knowledge. He was advised, this man, by another man to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day named Amara bin Al-Rahman. She was described as a boundless ocean of knowledge and she shared her knowledge with a number of famous men which kind of reminds me of our boss Dr. Condoleezza Rice when she shows up at a national security meeting and shares her boundless knowledge with all the men in the room. Amara was not an exception in Islamic history. There are many examples of extraordinary women, including jurists, poets and narrators of Hadith.

Today as I travel the world, I meet so many dynamic, intelligent, capable, creative and just warm and wonderful Muslim women who are making a tremendous difference in their countries, from Malaysia to Morocco, from the Philippines to Qatar and UAE. Last week, I participated in an Iftaar dinner at the home of Ray and Shaista Mahmood who are here tonight and it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. And they had invited -- it was attended by the President of the Senate in Pakistan and he had a great line in his remarks, so I'm going to steal it unabashedly. He said: You could call this age of technology the age of e-mail, but he thinks it's really the age of the female -- (laughter) -- because so many women are becoming agents of change around our world and I believe that's true as I travel and meet them. And I also think that's good for the future of the world because the statistics show when you educate and empower women, almost every other aspect of the society improves, from its health to its economy.

I've met courageous women who've campaigned for office in Afghanistan, in Iraq, women who are taking literacy classes at a program in Morocco and you should have seen the light in their eyes, as they talked about being able to help their children with their homework for the first time in their lives. Next week I'll travel to the Middle East with Nancy Brinker of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to meet with women doctors and business leaders who are working with us to share knowledge about early detection to prevent deaths from breast cancer.

I've met amazing women like Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan whose brave example is leading to changes in rape laws in that country and women like Dr. Ingrid Mattson who is with us this evening, a thoughtful scholar, a teacher and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America and I think we owe Ingrid a round of applause. (Applause.) Ingrid was one of the very first people I met when I attended the ISNA Convention last year and she's doing a wonderful job and is a wonderful leader and role model for many, many people.

As I travel the world, I remind people that Islam is an important part of America. One of our country's greatest strengths is the diversity and richness of our many faith traditions: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, people of many faiths and even some of no faith at all live together peacefully and in a climate of mutual respect. American Muslims are both American and Muslim in their identities. And I believe Muslim Americans are our country's most effective and important bridge to Islamic communities across our world.

I was in Germany not too long ago when I met a Turkish woman who was explaining to me how her community feels very isolated within Germany. And I said, "Oh, you know, I would love to come to your community and meet with people there, could I come?" And she looked at me and quite bluntly said, "no." And I'm not -- I was kind of taken aback, I'm not used to that. And I said, "Well, why not? " And she said, "Well, we don't even want to meet with -- we don't meet with our own government. Why would we interact with yours?" But I said to her, "Well, what if I send some Muslim American citizens?" Well, that would be great, she said.

And so from that conversation, we recently launched a new citizen dialogue program and a number of you have participated in it, sending Muslim Americans to reach out to Islamic communities across the world. We've sent students. We've sent imams. We've sent business leaders and the dialogue that takes place is really incredible. And so I wanted to invite any of you all who are interested in volunteering to sign up this program to please contact my office because I really think it's one of the most effective things that we're doing here at the State Department to reach out across the world.

Many of the people in this room have also played an important role in promoting interfaith dialogue and I'm convinced that it is absolutely key to the more peaceful world that we all want. The foundation of this nation, of our country, is built on respect for one another, from a belief in the dignity and the value of every single person. We believe all people, those of every faith, boys and girls, are equal and equally valuable. And it will take all of us to build communities in a world that is safer, respectful and just and peaceful. We must come together as people of faith and say that all our faiths teach that life is precious and the taking of innocent life is wrong.

I believe the concerted moral leadership of individual men and women of different faiths and cultures, it is what will ultimately help us prevail in the struggle against violent extremists. And women have a special role, I believe, to play in this effort in encouraging respect and understanding because we are in many cases, the nurturers of the next generation.

I'm confident that we have not yet witnessed the full power and impact of the lives of the women that we honor here tonight. And tonight we look forward with hope to a more peaceful world. We express our gratitude for our many blessings, especially the freedom to celebrate the incredible richness that different faiths bring to our country as we break bread together on this holiest of nights for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Thank you all and Ramadan Mubarak.

(Applause.)

Released on October 19, 2006

ENDS


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