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By Maha Elgenaidi, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer
April 28, 2022
As I reflect on my upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. alongside fellow Muslim Americans to celebrate Eid with the Bidens on Monday, May 2nd, an invitation I am grateful for, I am reminded of my previous trips to Washington to celebrate Ramadan with President Obama and various US government officials.
The practice of celebrating Muslim holidays in the White House is almost as old as America itself. It is documented that the first iftar celebration was held in 1805 by President Thomas Jefferson when he invited a Tunisian envoy named Sidi Soliman Mellimelli to dinner. Upon learning that Mellimelli was fasting for Ramadan, Jefferson changed the mealtime from 3:30 to sunset—when Muslims break the daily fast. The tradition of regular White House iftars for Muslim Americans was initiated during President Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s and continued under subsequent administrations.
Religious Pluralism is an American value that is reflected in the First Amendment under the Religious Liberty Clauses that state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” These clauses mean that there is no state religion and that all citizens of this country have the right to freely practice their faith.
American inclusion of diversity is further encapsulated in the principle of E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “out of many, one.” Once the nation’s motto adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782 as part of the Great Seal of the United States, it was intended to represent the federal nature of the nation—out of many states, one country. Eventually, that motto gave way to the one we have today, “In God We Trust.”
However, E Pluribus Unum better reflects the growing inclusion of all Americans, theists and non-theists, who come from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. This is clearly reflected in the demographics of the nation that tell us that around 40% of Americans are non-white and that 11% of Americans who identify with organized religion belong to non-Christian religions.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and MeToo movements, we are finally seeing a genuine move towards the prioritization of equity and inclusion and an expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs across various sectors in society, from universities that have developed restitution programs for their role in slavery and oppression of Indigenous Peoples and confiscation of their lands, to an acceptance of diversity which goes beyond the mere tolerance of minority religions, such as commemorations of Ramadan and Eid in corporations. Take, for example, the case of Amazon where their Muslim employees initiated a Ramadan event for their co-workers to learn about their experiences of fasting. They expected a few dozen people to attend the event, but with the help of Amazon interfaith networks, over eight hundred employees registered for the event.
Our organization has also experienced a surge of requests for DEI seminars and panels for law enforcement agencies, corporations, retail stores, healthcare facilities, city governments, schools, and universities.
Long before BLM, we had created the Interfaith Speakers Bureau (IFSB) which includes representatives from the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, speaking about their faiths and how they relate to contemporary issues.
Post BLM, we created the Intercultural Speakers Bureau (ICSB) which is made up of panels of marginalized groups, including Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Jewish Americans discussing the interconnected roots of racism towards their communities and how to counter it. The ICSB has become one of our most frequently requested programs because it also reflects the changes in the country around DEI.
On ICSB panels, speakers address the history of bigotry and how we came to hold the various biases against different groups, as well as how these biases override our stated values as demonstrated, for example, by a pair of studies by University of Connecticut researchers which found that employers are less likely to respond to a job application if that resume includes evidence of membership in a faith group, especially if they are Muslim.
Panelists also look at the impact of bigotry on their communities, which ranges from individual bias to hate speech and hate crimes, as well as structural racism across various institutions that impact every aspect of life for a person from that group. Upon request, we also provide cultural competency tips for effective interactions with diverse groups.
ICSB panels conclude by calling audiences to counter the historical harm against these communities and strive to do better both at the interpersonal and institutional levels.
The feedback from these panels has been extraordinary, expressing a thirst for learning about one another. A recent testimonial by an audience member following an ICSB panel for city officials sums up the value of these panels: “I liked hearing from multiple ethnic groups on the oppression they’re facing and have faced. It opened my eyes. The action items listed at the end of the presentation left me feeling hopeful and like I could affect change. I needed that. Thank you for this panel!”
Video testimonials from those who have requested these and other ING presentations can be seen here.
Despite all the challenges and setbacks in recent years, it is heartening to see that American civic society is moving towards living E Pluribus Unum. We are witnessing this in schools and workplaces, and even in Hollywood where there is a new commitment to bring greater diversity to the screen. Hopefully, these combined efforts will eventually impact daily interactions between all Americans and lead us to a place where we are able to view and judge each other, not by the color of our skin but by our shared humanity.
So, when I go to Washington for the White House celebration next week, I will be part of the practice of E Pluribus Unum, not only through my participation, but also by being a part of a Muslim American community that is equally diverse in its racial makeup. Now that is something to celebrate!
Maha is the founder and Innovation Director of ING.org. [Bio and Blog]