Ambassadors, high-ranking officials and leading Congress members were greeted by a fig centerpiece and gathered around tables draped in green at the White House’s annual Ramadan iftar, the meal that breaks the day-long fast during the Muslim holy month, Tuesday night.
“We honor the contributions of America’s Muslims and the positive examples that so many of them set through their own lives,” President Barack Obama said as he continued the tradition of holding iftars at the White House.
He reiterated his commitment to fostering better relations between America and the Muslim world, echoing the theme of speeches given earlier in the year in Turkey and Egypt about the need for mutual engagement and respect.
The first-ever Muslim members of Congress, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, attended as did top administration officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder, Chair of the Judiciary Committee John Conyers and Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs committee.
Ambassadors from several Muslim countries and from Israel also attended the iftar, a White House tradition started by President Bill Clinton and continued in George W. Bush.
The contribution of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country
President Barack Obama
The guests, which also included Muslim community members from throughout the country, started off with the traditional dates that are used to break the daylong Muslim fast and dined on organic chicken, potato and leek puree and peas.
"The contribution of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country," Obama said.
He went on to tell the story of noteworthy Muslims like Kareem Khan, a decorated soldier who was killed in Iraq, and Nashala Hearn, who won the right to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, at school.
Obama also singled out invited basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who broke a state record for most career points as a Massachusetts high school student, from among the guests, and paid tribute to boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
"As an honor student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls - she's an inspiration to all of us," he said.
“And while Muhammad Ali could not join us tonight, it is worth reflecting upon his remarkable contributions, as he's grown from an unmatched fighter in the ring to a man of quiet dignity and grace who continues to fight for what he believes -- and that includes the notion that people of all faiths holds things in common,” he added.
As an honor student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls - she's an inspiration to all of us
Ramadan, which began Aug. 22 according to Sunnis and Aug. 21 for Shiites, is a month of prayer, religious refection and generosity during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations during daylight hours.
Obama released a video message to Muslims before the start of Ramadan in which he discussed the similarities Christians and Muslims share in terms of their values and principles.