US president Barack Obama hosted a traditional iftar (fast-breaking) dinner at the white House on Friday evening, using the occasion to emphasize the important role Muslims have played throughout the country's history.
“Of all the freedoms we cherish as americans, of all the rights that we hold sacred, foremost among them is freedom of religion, the right to worship as we choose. It's enshrined in the First Amendment of our constitution -- the law of the land, always and forever,” Obama said to a crowd that included diplomats, ambassadors, military service members, administration officials, Muslim deputies and members of Congress -- including Muslim American members of Congress Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.
Also attending the dinner, which was held in the State Dining Room, was Turkic American Alliance (TAA) Chairman Faruk Taban, head of TAA's New York branch Furkan Koşar and New Jersey-based Turkish businessman Burak Yeneroğlu.
Obama praised American Muslims for enriching the nation's culture. “Like so many faiths, Islam has always been part of our American family, and Muslim Americans have long contributed to the strength and character of our country, in all walks of life.”
Greater participation of female athletes at the Olympics was another focus of Friday's dinner. Obama noted that for the first time in Olympic history each team included a woman.
"One of the reasons is that every team from a Muslim-majority country now includes women as well. And more broadly -- that's worth applauding," he said.
The president also underlined the role of women in the Arab Spring. “We've seen the extraordinary courage of Muslim women during the Arab Spring -- women, right alongside men, taking to the streets to claim their universal rights, marching for their freedom, blogging and tweeting and posting videos, determined to be heard,” he stated.
Yet another focus of the dinner was Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was accused by a group of Republican lawmakers of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organization.
Calling Abedin an American patriot, Obama said, “She is nothing less than extraordinary in representing our country and the democratic values that we hold dear.”
Obama also used the occasion to recall a recent attack at a Wisconsin Sikh temple that left seven dead. Obama stated that such violence has no place in the US, saying the attack on Americans of any faith is an attack on the freedom of all Americans.
“Tonight, our prayers, in particular, are with our friends and fellow Americans in the Sikh community. We mourn those who were senselessly murdered and injured in their place of worship.”
Obama has made a special effort since taking office to repair US relations with the world's Muslims, including visits to Turkey and Cairo. In a 2009 speech in the Egyptian capital, as well as in one to another important Muslim audience in Turkey, Obama said, “America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam.”
Thomas Jefferson held the first-known White House iftar in 1805, a sunset dinner in honor of Tunisia's envoy in Washington.
Highlights from Friday's menu more than two centuries later included greens from the White House kitchen garden with a tarragon dressing, a spiced Middle Eastern crisp bread called lavash, thyme-roasted chicken and sesame halvah crunch for dessert.