- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Showcasing the contributions of American Muslims he said represent “extraordinary dynamism and diversity,” President Obama hosted a White House dinner Tuesday to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Mr. Obama was extending a presidential tradition and pushing forward his goal of reaching out to the Muslim world in an attempt to show cultural understanding.

The interfaith dinner was held in the State Dining Room after sunset, when Muslims are allowed to break their daily fast during Ramadan. White House aides arranged the seating to mix the officials, diplomats, religious scholars and citizens who had been invited to what Mr. Obama called a “feast.”

“Together, we have a responsibility to foster engagement grounded in mutual interest and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said. “That is central to the new beginning that I’ve sought between the United States and Muslims around the world, and that is a commitment that we can renew once again during this holy season.”

The president was recognizing the “new beginning” he called for in a speech to the Islamic world in Cairo in early June.

Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter who helped to craft the Cairo address, was seen mingling among the guests before the dinner began.

Mr. Obama paid tribute to some of his guests, recognizing the family of a highly decorated Muslim soldier and army specialist, Kareem Khan, who was killed in Iraq.

The president said the fallen soldier had won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“A crescent is carved into his grave, just as others bear the Christian cross or the Jewish star,” Mr. Obama said. “These brave Americans are joined in death as they were in life — by a common commitment to their country, and the values that we hold dear.”

Kareem Khan’s name was in the headlines last fall, when retired Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, mentioned him when endorsing Mr. Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Powell was using the soldier’s example of sacrifice to push back against those who were falsely trying to paint Mr. Obama as Muslim and suggesting there was something wrong with the Islamic faith.

The former secretary of state used similar language as he spoke about Mr. Khan’s mother shown in a photo resting her head on her son’s grave at Arlington.

“At the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith,” Mr. Powell said.

At Tuesday night’s dinner, Mr. Obama also praised Nashala Hearn of Muskogee, Okla., for successfully challenging her school district for her right to wear a hijab, a head covering.

Mr. Obama also lauded Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, an honor student who broke the Massachusetts state record for most points scored by a high school basketball player. She’s “an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls, she’s an inspiration to all of us,” he said.

Mr. Obama also noted famed boxer Muhammad Ali for saying all religions desire “the pursuit of peace and the dignity of all human beings” and are “the basis upon which we find common ground.”

The president opened his remarks with the traditional “Ramadan Kareem” blessing and offered special recognition for Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, and Rep. Andre Carson, Indiana Democrat, the two Muslim members of Congress.

Mr. Obama, who is Christian but during his presidential campaign had to fight false Internet rumors he practiced Islam, closed by calling on Americans to “rededicate ourselves to the work of building a better and more hopeful world.”

Mr. Obama said the dinner was “just one part of our effort to celebrate Ramadan,” a holiday he recognized in a Web video translated into Arabic and spread through global social-networking channels.

Earlier this year, he offered a similar message of friendship in a Web video to mark Nowruz, the Iranian new year.

The press was not allowed in for the opening reception, but many attendees were seen in the White House grand foyer drinking water, tea and juice and eating large dates carried on a platter - the traditional fare for breaking the fast at sunset. An aide said the White House provided a private place for those who wished to do their Ramadan prayers.

The menu included salad from the White House garden with spiced almonds and honey vinaigrette, organic chicken with potato and leek puree and late summer peas. Dessert was kataifi wafers made of shredded phyllo and nuts, and orange and lemon sorbet.

President George W. Bush held the event annually, saying at the final dinner, “One of the great strengths of our nation is its religious diversity.”

Mr. Obama, who also hosted the first White House Passover Seder in April, invited several dozen friends, ambassadors and diplomats from a host of nations spanning the globe from Indonesia to Morocco. Also in attendance were Islamic scholars, Christians, Jews and Hindus and members of civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several members of the President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships also were attending, along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and deputy secretaries from the departments of Education and Commerce.

Other lawmakers there included Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, both Democrats. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, who enjoys a friendly relationship with the president, also attended and sat next to Mr. Gates.

Also attending were Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, political adviser David Axelrod and Office of Management and Budget chief Peter R. Orszag.

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