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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal   Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Remarks at Iftaar Dinner with leaders of the American Muslim Community
December 21, 1999, Washington, D.C.
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State
Blue Line

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Colleagues and honored guests, welcome. I am delighted you could come. I want to thank Assistant Secretary Harold Koh, Ambassador Bob Seiple and their staffs for all their work in arranging this event.

And let me echo Harold's earlier apology for the short notice. We don't usually invite people to events here at the State Department with only three days warning. But hopefully, in this case, the scrambling of schedules will be to good purpose, freeing time for the resumption of Middle East talks and leading perhaps to real progress towards peace.

In the meantime, quite a number of events on my schedule were cancelled. But there was no way I was going to cancel this dinner, which I have long wanted to do. Ramadan is a very special time, and I deeply appreciate your willingness to spend an evening here. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I.

This is the second Iftaar I have had the honor to host. Last year, we had Chairman Arafat and his delegation.

This year, we considered issuing invitations to appropriate members of the diplomatic corps. But I felt it would be even more valuable and fitting to invite leading members of America's Islamic community--that is, you. After all, U.S. foreign policy is conducted in your name. And like other citizens, you may not agree with everything we do, but you should at least feel a connection to it, and know that your views are being heard.

I suspect that for many American Muslims, this is not something you simply take for granted.

You may be familiar with Professor Huntington's article of six years ago, predicting a clash of civilizations in which the Muslim world and the West would be adversaries. That is an unacceptable prospect for all of us, including Muslims who live in the West.

The article contained many false assumptions, but it did serve as a warning that people of good faith from every faith must work together.

In so doing, we draw strength from the knowledge that no single nationality or culture has a monopoly on wisdom or good values. And we derive confidence from the conviction that human rights are universal, and that people everywhere share a common interest in peace, development and justice.

This sense of common interest was illustrated just this past month in the UN General Assembly, when it approved a Resolution sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and cosponsored by the United States of America.

In direct contrast to the Huntington article, that Resolution calls for a Dialogue of Civilizations. Its purpose is to underscore the importance--even as we celebrate and respect cultural differences--of working together to solve mutual problems.

If there were any doubt about that need, and the corresponding need to oppose intolerance, it should have been erased by the tragic history of this decade.

A few years ago, I traveled through the countryside in Bosnia. The war was still raging, and I remember seeing church after church still standing, and every mosque burned to the ground. I remember going to a farm in Croatia where hundreds of innocent people had been killed, their bodies dumped in a mass grave, not because of anything they had done, but simply for who they were.

I remember meeting the widows of Srbrenica, and of Rwanda, and of Kosovo, and being overcome with sadness and anger. I am supposed to be a powerful person; but there was nothing these women truly wanted that I had the power to give; and nothing I had the power to give that could replace what they had lost.

And now today, in Chechnya, we see a variation on the same tragic theme. And we are saying to the Russians, not only are the excesses of what you are doing wrong; your strategy is fundamentally misguided and will not work. Killing the innocent does not defeat terror; it feeds terror. You are making new enemies when what you need are friends.

One of the great challenges in the world right now and for decades to come will be that of resolving the inherent tension between the homogenizing effects of globalization, and the abiding differences of culture and faith that help to define and guide us in our journeys through life.

As a multi-ethnic democracy, America has long wrestled with the problems created by this tension. And the lessons we have learned--albeit still imperfectly--have been a rich source of our success.

Our nation was founded by those seeking religious freedom It has grown stronger with every advance in civil rights. Its future depends on our ability to understand that the American identity is not the property of any particular race, ethnicity or religion. And those who have a problem with that will just have to get over it.

We also need to move beyond stereotypes.

Before I was nominated to be Secretary of State, I remember reading that I should be disqualified because I was a woman and therefore would not be able to work with Arab or Islamic leaders. That presumption was an insult to Muslims and to women, and it betrayed an appalling degree of ignorance.

But there was ignorance, too--and bigotry--in the violence directed by some against Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the bombing in Oklahoma City; and in the conclusions some jumped to, without waiting for the investigation, after the tragic crash of Egypt Air.

There are a billion and a half Muslims in the world. They are of many nationalities and live in virtually every corner of every continent. How can anyone apply a stereotype to a quarter of the globe's people? Yet we know it happens every day in the press, in public discussions, and even among those who consider themselves knowledgeable and fair-minded.

That is why I hope in the coming year to make a concerted effort to build on this dinner tonight. I want to be sure that the legitimate concerns of Muslim Americans are taken into account when shaping the programs, activities and reports of this Department.

And I want to encourage our younger citizens to consider a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

I came to my job determined to do all I could to improve the State Department's record on diversity and equal opportunity.

I have had strong support from our administrative people and from the Director General of the Foreign Service. We are recruiting hard, but women and minorities--including Muslims--remain under-represented. We want and need to do better. I ask your help in urging young people in your communities to think seriously about becoming part of America's foreign policy team.

I ask this out of selfishness, because the future of the State Department depends on attracting smart young people. But it may also be the right choice for many Muslims, not because of their religion, but because they are dedicated and want to make a difference.

There can be great satisfaction in trying to forge a peace agreement, or prevent a humanitarian disaster, or speak up for a political prisoner, or try to improve respect for human rights. Our diplomats do these and a hundred other things to help make the world a little safer and better.

In closing, I want to thank you again for coming.

I have seen some of you before. I look forward to seeing all of you again. Together, I hope we will build a strong and durable bridge between the State Department and the American Muslim community.

I hope, as well, that with God's help, in this country and overseas, we will succeed in sowing knowledge where there is now ignorance; trust where there is now suspicion; well-being where there is now hardship; and peace where there is now conflict. That, in a nutshell, is the wish I wanted to share with each of you this evening.

Thank you again for being here, and I hope you all have a very blessed and fulfilling Ramadan.

[End of Document]
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