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Obama hosted iftar dinner at White House celebrating Ramadan

President Barack Obama speaks at White House Iftar dinner in White House in 2010

Source : Agencies
Washington | 11 Aug 2011

Continuing a tradition first started by one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, President Obama hosted an iftar dinner Wednesday evening in the State Dining Room to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The president is no stranger to the sunset fast-breaking meal – he likely attended many as a boy in Indonesia – but Wednesday’s event came with a star-studded guest list and an agenda: reaching out to an important, and often embattled constituency.

“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I want to extend our best wishes to Muslims in America and around the world,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday. “I look forward to hosting an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan here at the White House later this week, and wish you a blessed month.”

Obama reflected on “Islam’s role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings,” and described Ramadan as “a celebration of a faith known for great diversity and racial equality.”

“Ramadan is a time when Muslims around the world reflect upon the wisdom and guidance that comes with faith, and the responsibility that human beings have to one another, and to God,” Obama said. “This is a time when families gather, friends host iftars, and meals are shared. But Ramadan is also a time of intense devotion and reflection — a time when Muslims fast during the day and pray during the night; when Muslims provide support to others to advance opportunity and prosperity for people everywhere. For all of us must remember that the world we want to build — and the changes that we want to make — must begin in our own hearts, and our own communities.

At a time when Muslim Americans are facing stepped up scrutiny – with congressional hearings on radicalization in U.S. Muslim communities and legislatures across the country weighing bills to outlaw Sharia, or Muslim law – Obama called for Americans to treat Muslims with fairness and respect.

Obama called for “an America that doesn’t simply tolerate people of different backgrounds and beliefs, but an America where we are enriched by our diversity.

“An America where we treat one another with respect and with dignity,” he continued, “remembering that here in the United States there is no ‘them’ or ‘us;’ it’s just us.”

The purpose of Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calender and a time during which 1.7 billion Muslims around the world – including 2.5 million in the US – observe an obligatory fast from dawn until sunset. It was in Ramadan that the Koran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, an event Muslims mark by fasting, reading the Koran, performing additional prayers, and giving in charity.

The Arabic word for fasting, sawm, means "to refrain," and Muslims believe the entire body fasts during Ramadan – the tongue from backbiting, the eyes from seeing unlawful things, and the ears from listening to gossip or obscene language, for example. As such, Ramadan acts as a month-long exercise in discipline, cleansing, and refocusing one’s attention on worshiping God.

What is Iftar?

Each day of Ramadan, millions of fasting Muslims eagerly await iftar, the evening fast-breaking meal. Muslims break their fast at sunset, usually with a date and a glass of water – a tradition that goes back to Muhammad – followed by an assortment of cultural dishes.

The iftar meal is usually made with family and friends, often at home, sometimes in the mosque. As the hunger pangs of fasting Muslims are meant to be a stark reminder of those without food and material comforts, Muslims are also instructed to feed needy members of the community during iftar.

The White House iftar events

The first White House iftar was hosted by Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Obama referred to that historic iftar when he hosted his own White House iftar dinner in 2010.

“Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America,” Obama said. “The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan – making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.”

The actual dinner took place precisely at sunset on Dec. 9, 1805, for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, Tunisia’s Muslim envoy to the United States, who was visiting Washington for six months regarding a piracy dispute.

Though the practice quickly fell out of favor, first lady Hillary Clinton rekindled the tradition in 1996 by hosting a dinner to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. And under President George W. Bush, the White House iftar became an annual ritual. Mr. Bush hosted eight iftar dinners during his eight years in office in an effort to reach out to Muslim Americans and emphasize that America was not at war with Islam.

The guest list

The Obamas invited about 120 guests, including elected officials, religious and grassroots leaders in the Muslim-American community, and leaders of other faiths.

Word already leaked that Arizona Cardinals safety Hamza Abdullah and Minnesota Vikings safety Husain Abdullah were excused from practice to attend the White House iftar. The brothers drew national attention last year for fasting from food and drink throughout Ramadan (which coincides with National Football League training camps), a challenge for athlete on long, hot days.

“I’m still in shock over it,” Hamza Abdullah told the Arizona Republic. “I’m still waiting to get to the airport and they say, ‘OK, it’s fake.’ ”

Other guests included Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, and Rep. André Carson (D) of Indiana, who is also Muslim.

Attendees in past iftars have included Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities; Ambassador Akber Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University; and Ingrid Mattson, the director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Significance of White House iftars to Muslim Americans

In the minds of many American Muslims, Wednesday’s iftar no doubt marks a significant triumph, especially with Obama as its host.

When Obama delivered his inaugural address 2-1/2 years ago, Muslims felt they had helped elect someone who understood them and would work to repair relations with Muslims across the globe, says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

“His election was very transformational for many Ameican Muslims,” says Professor Esposito. “They could identify with him on multiple levels – he had lived in Indonesia, a Muslim country, his father and stepfather came from a Muslim background ... then of course, from his inauguration to his first international address in Cairo, he showed an attention to Muslims that other presidents hadn’t.”

Those feelings are reflected in a recent Gallup poll, which shows Obama’s 2008 election was a transformational event for Muslims in America and across the world. Muslim Americans give Obama an 80 percent approval rating in the poll, the highest of any religious group. (At 65 percent, American Jews are a distant second.) By contrast, the approval rating for Bush, who started the annual White House iftar tradition, was 7 percent in 2008.

“The gestures he’s made demonstrate a sense of respect for Islam and Muslims and a knowledge of the tradition and issues,” Esposito continued. “All of those things have reinforced a sense of identification, which was doubly reinforced after Bush proved to be disappointing.”


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