The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks reshaped views of the Islamic faith, sparking sometimes intense debate about Muslims in America.
That debate still rages today, with Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) holding a series of hearings on radicalization of Islam and Republican presidential candidates sparring over whether Muslims should be hired to work in the federal government.
But in one corner of Washington, Muslim outreach is robust.
From Egypt to India to Qatar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s efforts have been forged during her globetrotting as she works to strengthen diplomatic relations with Muslims abroad. On Wednesday night, she brought her efforts home.
Seeking to advance the Obama administration’s goal of improving relations with Muslims, the Secretary hosted a reception at the State Department commemorating Eid ul-Fitr, a Muslim holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The reception centered on celebrating Muslim athletes, with special guests including former Atlanta Falcons football player Ephraim Salaam, British professional boxer Amir Khan, Olympic fencing hopeful Ibtihaj Muhammad and several former Fordson High School football players who are featured in the newly released documentary “Fordson.”
“The human drive to run faster and climb higher is universal and universally celebrated,” Clinton told a gathering of about 150 guests, including Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
Ten years after 9/11, the United States is still strong, Clinton said.
“We can’t pretend that there have not been difficulties and divisions ... but the power of America has always been anchored in our ability to come together and move forward as a nation,” she said.
Similar Ramadan events have been hosted this year by the White House and various embassies, including the British Embassy and the Israeli Embassy.
Commemorating influential Muslims and Islamic holidays has been a State Department tradition for years. At last year’s event, the Secretary honored 75 American Muslims the State Department calls “Generation Change,” who have served as sources of inspiration in their communities. The group included poets, entrepreneurs, comedians, musicians, grass-roots leaders, activists and designers.
But like much of the Department’s Muslim outreach efforts, these events typically take place under the radar. According to Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, reaching out to Muslims is not a goal the State Department necessarily cares to advertise.
“There is, in some cases, a political price to pay for Muslim outreach,” she said. “There is a segment of our country that is very hostile. I think that maybe the Secretary is interested in getting work done rather than getting a lot of fanfare,” she said.
Christine Brim, chief operating officer of the Center for Security Policy, said such events display favoritism for Islam.
“If the State Department and other government agencies intend ... to use government facilities and taxpayer dollars to conduct religious observances for Islam, they should also provide the American public detailed information on equivalent religious observances,” she said. “The American people have a right to know that their government is reaching out to one religion more than others.”
The department began hosting Ramadan receptions under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who held the first event in the form of an Iftar dinner in 1998.
While the department has also hosted numerous receptions aimed at honoring military personnel or various diplomats and their unique communities, a comprehensive search of press release archives showed that, unlike the annual Ramadan receptions, no other publicly announced receptions were tailored for any specific religious holiday.
“What is unique about the Eid reception is that it’s the Secretary’s opportunity to reach out to Muslim-American communities, which is not something she can normally do within her role,” Mogahed said.
Clinton showed serious dedication to Muslim outreach when she appointed Farah Pandith as the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities, said Stephen Grand, an expert on U.S.-Islamic world relations at the Brookings Institution.
“[Clinton] understood the important work that [Pandith] was doing” as a senior adviser on Muslim engagement for the Bush administration and “insisted” that she stay on in a specially created role, Grand said.
Pandith said her job is three-fold, with her responsibilities including government-to-government interaction, people-to-people engagement and understanding the Muslim demographic.
“We’re changing the narrative,” Pandith said. “It’s about moving from an incorrect narrative of an ‘us-them’ and talking about the narrative of an ‘us.’”
Difficulties arise, Pandith added, when the narrative is so often dictated by sound bites. Pandith said the case of Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ Quran-burning earlier this year, for instance, “challenged very publicly the importance of freedom and faith in our country.”
It is crucial, she said, to continue engaging with Muslims abroad and at home and to build partnerships and awareness.
“This leadership and this vision that [Clinton] brings to the table, the way she’s crafted this position, is really instructive,” said Pandith. “This is a leader for whom Muslim engagement is not new.”
Clinton’s Muslim outreach efforts date back to her days as first lady, when she held a White House Eid reception for about 150 guests in 1996 and credited her daughter Chelsea for teaching her about Islam. The event was the first of its kind at the White House. President George W. Bush later cemented the tradition, hosting a Ramadan reception every year of his term in office.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton appointed a young Muslim policy guru, Huma Abedin, as her deputy chief of staff. Abedin, a former White House intern who is fluent in Arabic and Urdu, currently serves as Clinton’s top aide. She was recently propelled into the public eye after an Internet scandal that led her husband, former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D), to resign in June.
Much of Clinton’s outreach efforts have been international. During the contentious debt ceiling debates in July, when America’s attention was focused on Congress, the Secretary took a five-country tour that included trips to Turkey, India and Indonesia. The visits focused primarily on meeting with diplomats and leaders to discuss the conflict in Libya, regional security and economic development and trade in Southeast Asia.
In April, the Secretary hosted the eighth annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington — the first time the event was held in the United States after seven years in Qatar — where she spoke about the Obama administration’s goals to pursue diplomatic partnerships with democratic-seeking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The year before, she was the first senior member of the U.S. administration to participate in the forum in Doha.
“She’s using multiple levels of engagement,” Pandith said. “We cannot work in isolation. We must work hand to hand with people around the world.”
The Secretary’s efforts, however, might not be enough, said Grand, who thinks the State Department should work harder to implement the idea of socioeconomic partnership that Obama addressed in his June 2009 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.
“It’s so important that America be seen as a partner in solving those needs rather than the perpetrator of those problems,” he said.
If the State Department places importance on hosting events commemorating Islamic holidays, Brim said, it should also reevaluate its outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood. In June, the Obama administration chose to resume formal and limited contacts with the Brotherhood in Egypt.
“We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt,” Clinton said in a meeting with the Hungarian prime minister in June, “that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency.”
Grand said it is important to understand the distinction between everyday Muslims and those responsible for terrorism.
“That is a big issue for the United States. We have never quite developed a consensus as to who our enemy is. Is it a small group of radical extremists or is it 1.4 billion Muslims?” Grand said. “I think we’ve cast a very wide web of suspicion, and it’s undermined our efforts both at home and abroad.”