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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 65-67

Special Report

Clinton’s Warm Eid al-Fitr Remarks Reflect Growing Recognition of American Muslims

By Richard H. Curtiss

Being an independent “Middle East expert” in Washington can be fun if you don’t have to make a living at it. In American media interviews you can say pretty much what you think about the current Middle East peace process, which is generally a lot more pessimistic than what the Clinton administration spin doctor on the same program has just said or is just about to say, and 180 degrees different from what the ever-present Israel-right-or-wrong guest or host claims and may even believe.

While I’m scheming to get my magazine’s toll-free number into the program, the apologist for Israel is trying to figure how to keep me from being invited back, and the U.S. government representative is hating me a little for being able to tell the whole truth, while he or she can’t.

I was having that kind of day on Monday, Jan. 10, the third day of Eid al-Fitr in the U.S. and the final day of Round One of Israeli-Syrian-U.S. talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, only 60 miles away. That day Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was leaving for Israel, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Charaa was making preparations to go home the next day, and I was being interviewed by the Middle East Broadast Center, MBC, an Arabic television network seen round the world, at a studio used by Washington correspondents for Arab and other foreign television networks.

With foreign correspondents in Washington, the routine is very different. There is no U.S. government spin doctor and no Friend of Israel to share time with. Just a 5- to 15-minute recorded interview, which may be used in its entirety or may be reduced to a 30-second soundbite. The guest has no control over the situation so he can relax and enjoy feeling important.

After the interview, while I was chatting briefly with the cameraman and Egyptian host Thabit El-Bardici, his countrywoman and colleague, stunningly beautiful Lamia Berugi, stuck her head into the studio to ask if we would like to watch while she videotaped President Bill Clinton’s White House summation of the Shepherdstown talks.

When Clinton finished, Ms. Berugi asked if I would like to see a videotape of President Clinton’s talk at that morning’s Eid al-Fitr program at the White House. Since I had been so carried away with my own temporary media prominence that I had totally forgotten about the White House event, I was delighted at being updated.

She flicked a switch and there was the U.S. president standing in front of a beautifully crafted backdrop made up of swatches of silk tapestries from South and Central Asia and talking to an audience of perhaps 100 Muslim activists, journalists and a few mid-level Muslim U.S. government officials whom the president named. At the president’s right were Imam Yahya Hendy, the newly appointed Islamic chaplain at nearby Georgetown University, where Clinton studied, and 14-year-old Na’Imah Saleem, a young woman with a radiant smile from Washington, DC’s Clara Muhammad School, both of whom had preceded the president in speaking about the significance of the Islamic holiday.

Clinton, looking remarkably rested and relaxed considering the fact that he had traveled four times in the previous seven days from the White House to the Clarion Hotel in Shepherdstown to help pick up the pace of the Israeli-Syrian interactions there, was apologizing for the absence of Hillary Clinton who, in his words, “has done this celebration for the past several years.”

In fact Mrs. Clinton has hosted an annual White House Eid observance since 1996, even though after the first one she was charged by at least one widely quoted U.S. Jewish leader with “inviting terrorists into the White House.” Perhaps not quite so candid was the president’s next statement that his wife “had to be out of the city today and that’s the only reason she’s not here, because this means so very much to her.”

No doubt every member of the audience wondered whether Mrs. Clinton’s absence might in fact stem from her current campaign for the Senate in New York state. Leaders of the state’s huge Jewish population seem to go out of their minds after her every encounter with a Palestinian, as happened last spring when she routinely noted that Palestinians ought to have a state like everyone else, and again last fall when, during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Mrs. Clinton didn’t challenge Suha Arafat’s descriptions of Israeli brutality during the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

I recalled that one U.S. Muslim leader had told me that, in reality, the White House had first informed Muslim leaders that, in Mrs. Clinton’s absence, the Eid al-Fitr event would not be held this year. When Muslim leaders replied that the cancellation of what had become an annual White House tradition would be considered an affront, the president’s staff huddled and then announced that for the first time in history a U.S. president would be hosting a White House Eid observance.

As I watched the tape, Clinton went into a brief but accurate description of Ramadan, reciting English-language translations of passages from the Holy Qur’an. Then, to my delight, he noted that “there are six million Muslims in our nation today [and] the number of mosques and Islamic centers, now at 1,200, continues to grow very rapidly.”

He may not have been totally accurate, since there may actually be as many as eight million Muslims in the U.S. and the figure of 1,200 mosques is based upon the number of Sunni Muslim mosques in contact with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), ignoring perhaps as many as 600 additional mosques that do not depend upon ISNA for religious materials or training of mosque prayer leaders.

But I was delighted that the president used the six million figure at all. It highlights the fact that Islam is not only the fastest-growing religion in the world, but also the fastest-growing religion in the United States. In fact, American Muslims already outnumber the five million American Jews, and Muslim numbers are growing while the Jewish population is static, both because of its low birthrate and because up to half of American Jews marry non-Jewish spouses and far fewer than half of the children of such mixed marriages grow up considering themselves Jewish.

“Let me say, also, that there is much that the world can learn from Islam,” Clinton continued. “It is now practiced by one of every four people on Earth. Americans are learning more [about Islam] in our schools and universities. Indeed, I remember that our daughter took a course on Islamic history in high school and read large portions of the Qur’an and came home at night and educated her parents about it, and later asked questions about it.”

Turning to the peace process, Clinton said, “We are on a track in which the Israelis, the Syrians, I hope soon the Lebanese, and already the Palestinians, have committed themselves to work through these very difficult, long-standing issues over the course of the next two months.” And he concluded by saying:

“I hope it is an immense source of pride that you live in a country that is trying to make peace in the land where your faith was born.”

As applause rolled up around the president, Ms. Berugi prepared to rewind the tape I was watching. “We’ll miss him,” she said, a trace of moisture in her eyes as she watched the beaming president shaking the hands of the Muslims surging around him.

“You will?” I asked incredulously, thinking of the unfinished Middle East peace process he had inherited seven years ago from the Bush administration. “Why?”

“He’s been good for us,” she said firmly.

I was baffled as I drove away, thinking of Clinton’s unwillingness to exercise the slightest pressure on Israel to make the concessions so necessary for peace. But then, I thought, there was Bosnia, belated though it was, and then Kosovo, where timely U.S.-led NATO intervention firmly halted the racist persecution of a largely Muslim Albanian minority by a Christian Serb majority.

And then I thought of the Democratic Clinton administration’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hosting a State Department Iftar dinner for the first time in history last month, the large crowd of both Democrats and Republicans at last month’s American Muslim Council Iftar dinner on Capitol Hill, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture Eid observance for the first time in history. And, on my desk when I returned to my office, was Republican Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert’s Eid greeting “to Muslims across America,” faxed to me by the American Muslim Institute, which encourages dialogue between Republican office holders and their Muslim constituents.

Positive recognition of the growing Muslim presence in the United States has become a bipartisan effort during the past seven years. And, certainly, during the Clinton presidency the specter of a Muslim-Christian “clash of civilizations,” has been revealed by U.S. actions in Bosnia and Kosovo to be little more than a product of Israeli wishful thinking. Yes, the rapidly growing American Muslim community has actually gone from near invisibility to national prominence, despite tooth-and-claw resistance from its Israel lobby detractors.

I telephoned AMC executive director Aly Ramadan Abuzaakouk, who was just back from the White House Eid observance, for his reaction.

“It was an historic event,” he exulted. “It was the first meeting between the American Muslim community and a sitting U.S. president. We hope this tradition of meeting with the Muslim community will continue in tackling issues of common concern.”

Sadly, neither of America’s two “newspapers of record,” The New York Times and The Washington Post, deigned to inform their readers that the president had spent part of his day with Muslim constituents. Nor, so far as I could tell, did any U.S. news service. Fortunately Reuters did, so perhaps some U.S. editors printed reports of the event which would give such a lift to their Muslim readers.

So Lamia Berugi was partly right when she said President Clinton has “been good for us.” Or, more accurately, the times are getting better for Islam in America. There are states like Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey where candidates for elective office no longer can ignore the huge Muslim-American and Arab-American concentrations. In fact, if the gigantic Arab-American, Iranian-American, and Muslim-American communities in California, the most populous U.S. state, can get themselves registered to vote and organized to coordinate that vote, the nation’s Muslims will have to be courted by presidential candidates from both parties, since neither can win without California’s electoral votes in a close race.

Happily, those who know them are aware that what American Muslims want is what’s good for America, just as in the Middle East Muslims insist that there can be no peace without justice. In both places, time now is on the side of the Muslims—if only they work together to seize the moment.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report.


Following are excerpts from Remarks by President Bill Clinton at the Jan 10, 2000 White House Event Commemorating the End of Ramadan

Eid Mubarak, and welcome to the White House...Over the weekend, along with Muslims all over the world, you celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The month of daily fasting is not only a sacred duty, it is also a powerful teaching, and in many ways a gift of Islam to the entire rest of the world—reminding not simply Muslims, but all people, of our shared obligation to aid those who live with poverty and suffering. It reminds us that we must work together to build a more humane world.

I must say, it was, I thought, especially fitting that we celebrated the Eid at the end of the first round of the talks between the Syrians and the Israelis. And I thought it was particularly moving that Imam Yahya Hendi read the passage from the Qur’an that said that Allah created nations and tribes that we might know one another, not that we might despise one another...It’s quite wonderful to say that Allah created the nations and tribes that they might know one another better, recognizing people have to organize their thoughts and categorize their ideas, but that does not mean we should be divided one from another.

It has been a great blessing for me, being involved in these talks these last few days, to see the impact of the month of Ramadan and the Eid on the believers in the Syrian delegation who are here. It was quite a moving thing. And I hope that your prayers will stay with them.

Let me say, also, that there is much that the world can learn from Islam. It is now practiced by one of every four people on Earth. Americans are learning more in our schools and universities. Indeed, I remember that our daughter took a course on Islamic history in high school and read large portions of the Qur’an, and came home at night and educated her parents about it, and later asked us questions about it. And, of course, there are now 6 million Muslims in our nation today. The number of mosques and Islamic centers, now at 1,200, continues to grow very rapidly.

Today, Muslim Americans are a cornerstone of our American community. They enrich our political and cultural life, they provide leadership in every field of human endeavor, from business to medicine, to scholarship. And I think it is important that the American people are beginning to learn that Muslims trace their roots to all parts of the globe—not just to the Middle East, but also to Africa, and to Asia, and to the Balkans and other parts of Europe. You share with all Americans common aspirations for a better future, for greater opportunities for children, for the importance of work and family and freedom to worship.

But like other groups past and present in America, Muslim Americans also have faced from time to time—and continue to face, sadly, from time to time—discrimination, intolerance and, on occasion, even violence. There are still too many Americans who know too little about Islam. Too often stereotypes fill the vacuum ignorance creates. That kind of bigotry is wrong, has no place in American society. There is no place for intolerance against people of any faith—against Muslims or Jews or Christians, or Buddhists or Ba’Hai—or any other religious group, or ethnic or racial group.

If America wishes to be a force for peace and reconciliation across religious and ethnic divides from the Middle East to Northern Ireland to the Balkans, to Africa, to Asia—if that is what we wish—if we wish to do good around the world, we must first be good here at home on these issues.

I ask all of you to help with that, to share the wellsprings of your faith with those who are different, to help people understand the values and the humanity that we share in common, and the texture and fabric and fiber and core of the beliefs and practices of Islam.

Children do not come into the world hating people of different tribes and faiths. That is something they learn to do. They either are explicitly taught to do it, or they learn to do it by following the example of others, or they learn to do it in reaction to oppression that they, themselves, experience. And those of us who are adults have a responsibility to change those childhoods, to give this generation of children around the world a different future than so many have played out tragically in the last few years.

I think it is quite ironic that at the end of the Cold War, when a system of atheistic, controlling communism has failed and been rejected, our latest demon seems to be the old-fashioned one of people fighting each other because they are of different religious faiths, or racial or ethnic heritages. We know that is not at the core of any religious teaching. We know it is not at the core of Islam.

So I ask you again to rededicate yourselves in this coming year to making sure that others in this country truly understand and appreciate the faith you embrace, its practices, its beliefs, its precepts and its inclusive humanity...Again, I say to you as we leave, in addition to your prayers and work for peace and understanding and reconciliation within the United States, I ask especially for your prayers for the current mission of peace in the Middle East.

We are on a track in which the Israelis, the Syrians, I hope soon the Lebanese, and already the Palestinians, have committed themselves to work through these very difficult, longstanding issues over the course of the next two months—the longstanding commitment between the Palestinians and the Israelis to resolve their business by next month. So this will be a time of great tension, where all people will have to search for wisdom and understanding, where there will be great reluctance to open the closed fist and walk out into a new era.

And I think that the prayers of Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of goodwill all over the world will be needed for us to get through these next several weeks. But for you, I hope it is an immense source of pride that you live in a country that is trying to make peace in the land where your faith was born. Thank you.