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R. Nicholas Burns - Remarks at the Iftaar Dinner

Remarks at the Iftaar Dinner

R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
As Prepared for Delivery
Washington, DC
October 18, 2006

Good evening. Ramadan Kareem. I want to thank you, Imam Arafat, for that beautiful and moving invocation. Your words remind us of the spirit of Ramadan and the celebration of community, family and faith that characterize this Iftaar.

Our Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, had intended to host this dinner – but is in Japan. She sends her best wishes and asked that we extend Ramadan Kareem on her behalf.

I am honored to be hosting this event with Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes. I am also delighted to be able to join such a remarkable group of individuals. I would like to recognize the women leaders we honor this evening, members of the Diplomatic Corps in attendance, and the members of the media who are joining us as well, especially those who are also celebrating this holy month of Ramadan.

It is appropriate that for this year's Iftaar, we are honoring Muslim women. Karen Hughes will mention some of the very special women in this audience. I would like to mention one in particular: my very first mentor in the foreign service: Mrs. Amany Osman, who was honored today as the Foreign Service National (FSN) employee of the Year from the Middle East region. She and her husband are joining us from Cairo. Amany – you taught me a lot about how to be an effective leader, about faith, dignity, hard work, and about service. Thank you for your extraordinary serve to Egypt as well as the United States, and thank you for being such a wonderful example of a strong Muslim woman.

We all gather tonight united in the cause of advancing tolerance and prosperity, freedom and faith. Tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan, Laylat al Qadr (LAY-LUT-AL-QA-DIR), the "night of power," the night traditionally marking the first revelation of the Holy Qu'ran. I thank you for spending part of your evening with us.

I remember distinctly the first time I experienced Ramadan. It was in the West African country of Mauritania in 1980. We had Iftaar in the Sahara desert just outside the capital, Nouakchott. I was impressed then, as I am now, by the simplicity of the evening and the fact that so many elements of the Muslim tradition are like my own religion, Catholicism: the collective strength of the Muslim community, its sincerity in fasting and in belief, in observing traditions and in honoring your prophet.

While most of us see clearly the connections we have among our different religions, not everyone does. We gather, unfortunately, at a time of war and terrible violence, and of 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 inevitably lead to conflict.

I respectfully disagree. The most bitter conflict in the world today is not between Christianity and Islam, Judaism and atheism, Buddhism and Hinduism, or any other religion. The conflict instead is between extremism and intolerance, present in all of our countries unfortunately, on the one hand -- and the forces of tolerance and hope and peace on the other.

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 and abroad to further connect our ties as men and women, mothers and fathers, and servants of our respective religions.

We Americans take pride in our Muslim community. It represents 80 different countries around the world. There are millions of Muslim Americans, worshipping at over 1,200 different mosques. This growing Muslim presence is a great and welcome change in our country.

Islam is currently a minority religion in the United States. It can sometimes be difficult to be a member of a minority, even in a country as tolerant as ours. I know this from my own grandparents who came here as a religious and cultural minority themselves: Irish Catholics. They experienced discrimination, but they resisted it and soon assimilated, while keeping their unique traditions and values. Similarly, Muslims in America retain their religious and cultural integrity -- and share and grow from the American identity rooted in our common values of freedom, equality, and opportunity.

We thank the Muslim community in America for teaching us about Islam. We still have much to learn. Some of the most powerful reformers in this century: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Agha Khan, and the Dalai Lama, have 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 it is by learning about each other and standing up for each other – the voices of tolerance and understanding -- that we will overcome the challenges of extremism, of those who seek to distort and exploit religion for their own designs.

The extremists will not succeed, because we know there is nothing irreconcilable between Islam and America. We understand this as we sit together tonight from our different backgrounds. We know this because we have Muslim classmates, teachers, and colleagues, and because we share similar hopes, dreams and fears for ourselves, our families, and our nations.

Finally, Islam, like all great religions, places the state of peace as the greatest of all human aspirations. At a time of conflict and bloodshed and misunderstanding, we sometimes forget to talk about that essential human dream – of peace. May it continue to motivate all of us in government and private life. Peace is our ultimate human ambition and the greatest reflection of what must unite all religions in this great country of ours.

As we celebrate our frienship and look to the future in this holy month of Ramadan, we extend peaceful wishes not only to you and your families, but to all Muslims around the world celebrating this important spiritual occasion. Ramadan Kareem.

Released on October 19, 2006


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