USAID Champions American Pluralism, Counters Ear-piercing Islamophobia, in First-ever Eid Reception
By Patrick Burnett
These last few weeks have been dark reminders of the divides we are facing at home and abroad. Around the world, extremists claiming to act in the name of Islam have launched vicious attacks on innocent people in Nice, Orlando, Baghdad, and even in the Islamic holy city of Medina - at the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque no less! In the US, we continue to face racial tensions run amok in the streets of Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and elsewhere in the country. Islamophobia now serves as a siren call across the nation, with a leading American public figure now calling for American Muslims to be tested for their allegiance to this country, claiming those who “ believe in Sharia ” should be deported. Such rampant Islamophobia has even opened a Pandora’s box of prejudice in the most routine parts of American life, such as real estate transactions in suburban Maryland.
We are standing on a precipice. Global civilization appears to be on the brink of catastrophe. Yet, during such trying times, when it seems everyone is seeking shelter in their own communal bubbles at the expense of pluralism, it is crucial we not lose sight of the positive intercultural and interfaith connections happening around us.
Just this past week, on Friday, July 8, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted its first ever Eid reception. One of the most important holidays of the year for Muslims, Eid-al-Fitr celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It is a day on which families and friends come together in joy, gifts are given, and a lavish meal is prepared and shared. The significance of USAID hosting this reception is akin to the significance of an agency in a Muslim-majority country hosting Christmas festivities.
I had the pleasure of joining Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, for USAID’s remarkable Eid reception. Ahmed had been invited to deliver a keynote address to this distinguished gathering of USAID’s top brass, including Associate Administrator Eric Postel, Assistant Administrator Tom Staal, and a number of top US Foreign Service officers. Ahmed’s address would not have been possible without the tireless work and dedication of C. Eduardo Vargas, Deputy Director of USAID’s Center for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, who reached out to Ahmed with such great warmth and friendship to invite him to speak and ensure his words of wisdom could be heard by such a high-level audience.
Additionally, a number of top Muslim leaders from around the world joined the reception, including Special Envoy Arsalan Suleman, the acting US Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Professor Shadab Zeest Hashmi, a prolific Pakistani-American poet, and Dr Amineh Hoti, Director of the Center for Dialogue and Action in Islamabad, Pakistan. It truly was a function with global impact.
The program opened on an upbeat note, with Postel reminding us all that while we are constantly exposed to stories of gloom and doom in the media, there are many brighter alternative narratives out there waiting for to be told and explored. He also reminded us that there is always hope even in the darkest places, going on to show us a video of a Jordanian schoolteacher who is allowing any Syrian refugee child to join her classroom so long as they “bring a chair.” These uplifting images were immediately followed by Staal’s touching stories of growing up the son of missionaries working in the Muslim world. He explained that not only would his family visit their Muslim neighbors on Eid to celebrate alongside them, but these same neighbors would come visit his family every year on Christmas - a sign of deep interfaith harmony and admiration.
The event really struck a high note though when the morning’s emcee, Gary Barrett, himself an African-American Muslim, introduced Ahmed. He set a strong, uplifting tone for Ahmed’s address in telling this distinguished audience that it is a “distinct honor” for him to introduce Ahmed, whom he “admires and respects.” He even told the crowd, “I was actually nervous”, when told he would be introducing Ahmed, showing how he went out of his way to honor Ahmed and set a reverent tone for his address. He also told of how Ahmed is a friend of Muslim and non-Muslim communities around the world - a tribute to Ahmed’s remarkable lifetime of work building bridges between faith communities around the globe.
Following this incredibly warm introduction, Ahmed went on to tell the crowd, listening at full attention, that he was particularly touched by the event, remarking that for a Muslim to see this warmth and love in this company in such trying times in the US serves as a reminder there is still hope for American Muslims and other minorities. Ahmed also remarked that the organization’s mission could be summarized in two words: connectivity and compassion, elaborating that this also represents for him the Islamic vision of humanity, which is to connect to others with a spirit of compassion.
Ahmed also took the opportunity to tell of his own remarkable encounters with USAID, an organization he decreed as consisting of “sociologists, diplomats, scholars, and humanists above all,” in the field in Pakistan. We learned that when Ahmed was serving as commissioner in rural areas of Pakistan, he was very impressed by the caliber of individuals working on the ground on behalf of the American people, finding them to immediately strike a rapport with the people of Pakistan. Even today, Ahmed has found, whenever he engages with USAID officials, the same tremendous qualities he saw in Pakistan continue to ring true.
Ahmed did have some words of caution for us all though, which we must be careful to heed. Most notably, he reminded us we are fighting a global war of ideas that will continue to play out in cultural and religious clashes at all levels. He also gave the sobering conclusion that this war is going to get worse and the work of not only USAID, but everyone around the world fighting for humanity, will have to be enhanced. Yet, Ahmed also remarked that, in this global battle, so long as USAID remains engaged in the world today, he feels relaxed about our future.
In conclusion, Ahmed gave us an uplifting, spiritual vision of humanity through the power of verse, reminded us of the deep connections that exist between our faiths and cultures. To properly conclude the month of Ramadan, Ahmed read us his poem, “A Ramadan Meditation in Verse” , visibly moving the audience with his mystical vision of God and how He shines through across all faiths, rather than pitting one faith against another.
As an American fully committed to our nation’s pluralist identity, my heart has broken over these past few months watching such divisiveness over race, religion, and ideology rise to the fore of our national narrative. Watching the meteoric rise of the Trump campaign, built on a platform of bigotry and demagogy, has at times raised doubts as to whether a pluralist vision of America will triumph in our current chapter of history. As a Catholic, I often find myself wondering if Jesus’ call for us to love one another will actually continue to ring true across this great nation and throughout the world.
Yet, attending this Eid festival and seeing the great work of my fellow Americans in representing our pluralist ideals both in DC and on the world stage reaffirmed my belief that pluralist America still perseveres. At the end of the day, I am proud that one of our premiere government agencies sought to organize its first ever Eid festival during a time of such challenge for American pluralism. Seeing my mentor, Ambassador Ahmed, who has dedicated his life so selflessly to building bridges between faiths and cultures, honored in such a warm, embracing manner by such senior figures during a time when Muslims face excruciating pressure was in itself incredibly moving. We may be facing great divisions and challenges in today’s America, but with so many pluralist leaders in our midst, I have no doubt that an all-embracing vision of America will hold strong well into our future.
And if we are really feeling doubtful as to the state of our pluralist society, perhaps Ahmed’s wise poetic verse, as spoken during his address, can serve as the spiritual guidance necessary to help us continue working towards a stronger humanity:
“And if you really want to love the Lord
You need to love each and every one of His Ward.”
(The writer is Program Coordinator to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed)