Friday, July 26, 2013

"And when we speak of our faith, it can’t be just about our personal relationship with God, it has to also be about our personal relationship one to the other, each to everybody else." John Kerry, Secretary of State, Remarks at the Ramadan Iftar Dinner 2013

State Department Hosts Annual Iftar Dinner with Sec. Kerry... ATFP's Dr. Asali is pictured sitting to the right of Kerry at the dinner table.

The State Department hosted a group of distinguished guests, including ATFP Pres. Dr. Ziad Asali, to commemorate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at their annual Iftar dinner on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

During his address, Kerry discussed the importance of religious tolerance, freedom, and cooperation. Kerry cited the need to transcend religious differences and find common ground for the sake of peace, prosperity and a better global future.

Kerry also emphasized the pressing need to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine and said that the necessity for this has “never been greater than it is today.”

Remarks at the Ramadan Iftar Dinner

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
July 24, 2013

Thank you very much. Assalamu alaikum. It’s wonderful to be here with everybody. And Farah, thank you for an extraordinarily gracious introduction. And most importantly, thank you for an absolutely extraordinary job, I think you will all agree, as our Special Representative to the Muslim Community. We are really pleased with what you’re doing. Thank you.

 She said in her introduction that when I was a senator, she never dreamed that she could call me boss, but I want you to know, since I was an elected official, there were lots of things she could call me – (laughter) – and probably did. But I’m honored to, quote, “be her boss” today. I don’t think of myself that way. We’re a great team here at the State Department, an extraordinary group of people, all of whom – I see our Under Secretary Pat Kennedy here, and Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and I haven’t looked around the whole room, but many other members of our team are here, and we all join together in welcoming you here to this break of the fast.

It is a privilege to do this. I know that Washington being sort of a little bit further north – try this in Boston or even further north, you wait till later. But I know the sun sets late, so we figured it would be a heck of a lot better to have an Iftar here at the State Department than to have a Suhoor. (Laughter.) And one thing I know as a former elected official, never keep people from their meal, and believe me, after a day of fasting, even more so. So eat. Everybody has to eat while I say a few words here if I can.

We are joined this evening by a really remarkable group of people. And I want to welcome my former colleagues from the United States Congress who are here, members of the Diplomatic Corps who are here, some of whom I saw just last night as we received many of them here. But I also especially want to recognize our Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and Rashad Hussain, President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We’re delighted to have them here. (Applause.)

Most importantly – and I say this without any artifice – every single one of you were invited here because you are all doers. You are all active. You’re all engaged. You’re all involved in trying to make the world a better place, and you’re all involved in reaching out to other people and practicing, if not your faith, certainly practicing the best tenets of how human beings can live together.

And we are celebrating the holiest month of the Muslim calendar year, Ramadan. It is a time for peaceful reflection and for prayer. It is a time for acts of compassion and charity. So to all of you tonight, and to the millions of American Muslims across our land, and to the many more around the world, Ramadan Kareem.

I want to – (applause) – thank you. You can clap for Ramadan Kareem. (Applause.)

I want you to know that the tradition of sharing respect for this particularly holy month actually reaches back to the earliest days of our Republic. This is the Benjamin Franklin Room, and it’s a fitting venue for this occasion because Ben Franklin was really our first formal diplomat. And he was also among the earliest proponents of religious freedom in our country. He wrote in his autobiography, “Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

To find a pulpit at one’s service, to profess one’s faith openly and freely, that is really a core American value. And I’m proud to say, as all of us are who are American here, that it is enshrined in our Constitution, and hard fought for. And it has been at the center of our story, our national story, since the 1600s, when a fellow by the name of John Winthrop, who happened to have been my great grandfather eight times removed, led a ship full of religious dissidents across the Atlantic to America in order to seek the freedom of worship.

Throughout its history, America didn’t always get it right. In my home state of Massachusetts, John Winthrop and Puritans overreached, and people ran away from Salem and from other places to found New Haven, Connecticut, and found Providence, Rhode Island, named Providence after wandering a year through the woods in the winter in order to escape from persecution. So we didn’t always get it right.

But throughout our history, we have struggled with the divisiveness of religious differences. I can proudly say today that no place has ever welcomed so many different communities, so many people, to worship so freely. The diversity and the patriotism of America’s religious communities today are sources of strength for all of us. And our freedom to worship is a powerful reminder of the traditions that we share. E pluribus unum: from many, one. And from many faiths, we do stand together in one shared country. Now ultimately, our sense of kinship is grounded in our shared sense of humanity, a moral truth that emerges based on the dignity of all human beings.

So tonight, I just pose a question to you: Can our great faith traditions – the Abrahamic faiths that Farah referred to – can they forge a common effort for human dignity? My faith and the faith that I have seen in the lives of so many Americans tells me that the answer to that is resoundingly yes. Our faiths and our fates – our fates are inextricably linked. It’s not enough just to talk about greater understanding. Our partnerships, the way we work every day in life, the way we reach out country to country, people to people, they have to foster a mutual respect and underscore the freedoms that we seek.

I think it’s safe to say – I hope it is safe to say that may there are four partnerships that will be critical if we’re going to live up to our obligations to one another: partnerships for peace, for prosperity, for our people, and for the future of our planet. Let me begin just quickly with the fourth.

For many of us, respect for God’s creation in almost every scripture really demands and translates into a duty to protect and sustain God’s first creation. Our response to climate change ought to be rooted in a fundamental sense of shared stewardship of the earth that emerges from that tradition. We must also obviously strive to forge a partnership for peace, and there is no religion, no philosophy of life – whether Hinduism, Confucianism, Native American tenets – nothing that doesn’t talk about peace and the responsibilities of each human being to another.

I’ve just returned, as many of you know, from the Middle East, and I can tell you the need for lasting peace and security between Israelis and Palestinians, between Sunni and Shia, between so many different minorities and so many different people has never been greater than it is today. Our partnership for peace obviously extends far and wide, from the Syrian people to people on every continent on this planet, all of whom seek to achieve the freedom and the dignity that they so richly deserve.

We also can find a common ground in the partnership for prosperity. Tahrir Square, a fruit vendor in Tunisia – these weren’t religiously motivated revolutions, not at all. They were demands for respect and opportunity by individual human beings frustrated by the inability of governments to address their needs. And when youth see no hope for escaping from poverty or improving their lives, then problems can become truly insurmountable.

And to meet the demands of these populations for dignity and for opportunity requires new and creative partnerships. We need to reach beyond governmental and beyond government itself in order to include business, civil society, and of course, people of all walks of life working together in order to invest in the future through collaborations like the Partnerships for a New Beginning.

This brings me to the fourth partnership quickly, and then I will close. That is the partnership between our peoples. Earlier this evening, I met very briefly in the Monroe Room there with a group of outstanding representatives of the State Department who are part of programs we sponsor working with Muslim communities around the world. I’m very proud of the work that they are doing, and as Secretary of State, I not only find it inspiring, I think it is something we need to export and grow. All of these initiatives, in the end, add up to the way you find a different way of doing things, a different way of bringing people together to work for these common goals.

I’m pleased to tell you tonight that we’re in the process of expanding our capacity to do just that here in the State Department. We’ve created the first faith-based office, which will reach out in a major way across continents and oceans in order to try to increase our engagement with faith communities, and you’ll be hearing a great deal more about this effort in the days ahead.

Before I close, let me share – just share a couple things with you. I was impressed when I first visited Saudi Arabia, and I met King Abdullah, and I listened to him talk about his sense of urgency about bringing faiths together and his own initiative to try to reach out across the divide and bring Muslim and all other religions together. That has grown. There are Jordanians – Prince Ghazi and others – who are working similarly in efforts to try to reach across the divide and prove that radical, political Islam does not represent the true heart and faith.

I’ll share a story with you. It’s a story of bringing people together and of what makes a difference. It involves a rabbi, a Greek Orthodox bishop, and an imam. Now I know that sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke – (laughter) – but I want to tell you right up front, it’s not, it’s a true story. And I think Congressman Keating from my home state is here, and you can ask him, because he lived this story as I did. It embodies the kind of partnership and the way in which all of us need to think and ways in which we can be inspired.

Back in the early 1990s in Massachusetts, the Muslim community in Quincy, Massachusetts, home, I might add, of former President John Adams and John Quincy Adams, this – the Muslim community was looking for more land on which they could build an Islamic center – not a mosque, an Islamic center. And they found a large parcel in a nearby town. But when the residents heard about the plans, not unlike what happened in New York and elsewhere, they tried to keep the mosque from being built.

Dr. Ashraf, the President of the Islamic Center of New England, was about to give up hope, literally about to quit. He called everybody and talked to people. Then, out of the blue, unsolicited, he received a phone call from a man in another town, who just said simply, “Dr. Ashraf, I heard you need some land on which you want to build a mosque and a school, a center. And we would love for you to come and build your center here. We welcome you.”

My friends, when they finally broke ground, there stood three men holding shovels, breaking ground together: a rabbi, a Greek Orthodox bishop, and the imam. Today, that center stands tall and proud, and tonight, Dr. Ashraf’s niece stands right here. This is Farah Pandith’s uncle. (Applause.)

This is what our shared humanity asks of us, even demands of us. And when we speak of our faith, it can’t be just about our personal relationship with God, it has to also be about our personal relationship one to the other, each to everybody else.

I think you will agree with me. I have never met a child in my life – two years old, two and a half years old, three years old – who hates anybody. They may hate their broccoli or something else they’re forced to eat, but they don’t hate other people or kids. They learn that. It is taught. It is passed down.

And what we need to do is care for our fellow men and women, whatever the differences. If we are doing God’s work, we can do that. So let us act in faith – act in faith – even as we preach it. Let us treat each other with respect. Let us lift up humanity and live our faiths fully and freely and draw inspiration from this day of fasting and every day of fasting in Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak. Thank you. 

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