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Obama offers iftar to help bridge gap

President highlights common ideals of justice and tolerance as he hosts dinner to underscore the community's contributions to the country.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama was scheduled to host an iftar dinner at the White House yesterday in honour of Ramadan, the latest gesture by a president who has vowed to improve relations with the Muslim world.

The feast was scheduled to be held in the State Dining Room to "highlight the contributions of American Muslims", according to an announcement by the White House Press Office. The president was also scheduled to make brief remarks at the dinner. Before leaving for holiday last month, Mr Obama, the son of a Muslim, delivered a video message on the occasion of the holy month. "I know this to be a festive time - a time when families gather, friends host iftars and meals are shared," Mr Obama said.

"I also know that Ramadan is a time of intense devotion and reflection - a time when Muslims fast during the day and perform tarawih prayers at night, reciting and listening to the entire Quran over the course of the month. "These rituals remind us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam's role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." The presidential iftar continues a tradition that dates to the Clinton administration, but which took hold during the Bush years, starting almost immediately after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In November of that year, Mr Bush hosted an iftar with Muslim ambassadors and diplomats from about 50 countries, stressing that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which occurred the previous month, was not a war against the Islamic faith.

Mr Obama's iftar "is carrying on a custom which is a fairly recent development in the political calendar for Washington", said Richard Murphy, who was an assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs under Ronald Reagan. "It's a much-appreciated gesture by the Muslim-American community." Mr Bush ultimately hosted eight iftars during his presidency with guest lists that included Alasri Saeed al Dhahri, a former UAE ambassador to the United States; and Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a former minister of state for foreign affairs, who now serves as Sheikh Khalifa's representative for the Western Region. The guest list for Mr Obama's Ramadan celebration had not yet been released.

Bill Clinton held three Eid al Fitr dinners to celebrate the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Madeline Albright, a secretary of state under Mr Clinton, hosted an iftar dinner at the US state department in 1998. That tradition was continued by her successor, Colin Powell. Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he attended iftars hosted by both secretaries of state and one in the White House during the Clinton presidency. At one of the dinners, he recalled, pumpkin soup was on the menu.

Although not quite ready to put the White House iftars on the same diplomatic scale as Mr Obama's speech in Cairo this year, Mr Hooper said the receptions were nice gestures and appreciated by the Muslim-American community. "It's something people like to go to," he said. "It just makes a public statement that American Muslims are part of our society and that Islam is a recognised faith in America, and that is a positive message."


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