This week, for the first time in American history, the White House hosted a celebration of an Islamic holiday. It was long overdue.
To mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the most important Muslim holiday of the year, I welcomed 200 men, women and children (and even some sleeping babies) from across the country to the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building.There were prayers and speeches and a feast of traditional dishes, including meat dumplings, pita bread, hummus (a spicy garbanzo bean dip), baba ganoush (an eggplant dip), tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, tomatoes and cracked wheat) and pastries.
Like 1 billion other Muslims around the world, these American Muslims had just finished fasting from sunrise until sundown for 30 days. Ramadan is a special time for families, when parents and their children practice self-discipline and deny themselves food and water to gain greater compassion for the poor.
As I shared in this historic celebration of joy, love and family life, I couldn't help thinking of how we, as a society, too often mis-char-ac-terize Islam and those who adhere to its teachings. Think back to the Oklahoma City bombing and some of the reactions that immediately followed, and you'll know what I'm getting at. Moments after the explosion, Muslims were publicly presumed to have been responsible. While police searched for suspects, many Muslims in this country felt afraid to leave their homes. Mosques and Islamic centers received threatening phone calls.
While news stories about Muslims often focus on extremists like those responsible for the World Trade Center bombing and other acts of terrorism, it's not fair to apply such a negative stereotype to all Muslims.
The reality is that the vast majority of the estimated 4 million Muslims in the United States are loyal citizens whose daily lives revolve around work, family and community.
People who find spiritual guidance and sustenance in Islam represent all walks of American life. They range from well-known celebrities like Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon to community leaders like Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a California physician who served on the U.S. delegation to the Women's Conference in Beijing, to Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, the first Islamic chaplain in the U.S. Army, who offered a prayer at the White House ceremony.
They are also children like Marwa Al-Khairo, a Girl Scout and aspiring doctor who loves books by Judy Blume and Mark Twain. She, her two younger brothers and her Iraqi-born parents joined many other families at the White House celebration.
Standing on the dais, her green felt hat barely reaching above the microphone, she offered the most poignant reminder of why a celebration of Ramadan at the White House was as important to all Americans as to those in the room.
"Only in America, people from different parts of the world can come together and become one community," she said. "I am proud to be an American. And I am proud to be an American Muslim," she added, before ending her speech with a plug for her mosque's baklava, a favorite pastry.
Marwa's life is no different in many respects from that of other American sixth-graders. But listening to her, I thought about how hopeful it is for our country that children here can grow up like Marwa, fluent not only in the ways of America but also in their own cultural and religious traditions.
I am grateful that my own daughter has had the chance to study Islamic history in high school, certainly not an option for my generation. In fact, Chelsea was so enthusiastic about the course that when we traveled to South Asia together last year, she provided a running commentary on everything we did and saw.
Learning about all of the cultures that have enriched our society also enhances our understanding of what it means to be American. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants and diverse religious beliefs.
Now, I hope, Marwa and other Muslim children will also feel that their religion has a place in their President's house.