Antony J. Blinken – Deputy Secretary of State – Ben Franklin Room – Washington, DC – July 22, 2015
Deputy Secretary Blinken: Well, good evening, everyone. Assalamu alaikum. Eid Mubarak. It is wonderful to welcome you here to the State Department.
And on behalf of the President, on behalf of Secretary Kerry, it’s a privilege also to extend our best wishes to you and your families as Ramadan – a time of peaceful reflection and prayer – comes to a close.
To our distinguished guests from across the diplomatic community and around the world, welcome to you as well. It’s an honor to have you here this evening.
I have to start on a little bit of a somber note, and that is the passing of the dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Ambassador Olhaye, the ambassador from Djibouti. Many of you I think in this room had opportunities to know him and to work with him, and I want to say that tonight our thoughts and prayers are with his family and his friends.
He was a consummate diplomat who served through four consecutive American administrations, and he dedicated his life to a mission of diplomacy and peace, and he helped strengthen the relationship between the United States and Djibouti. So tonight, I did want to start by expressing our deepest condolences to his wife, to his children, and to his fellow citizens. We will miss him very much here in Washington.
Shaarik, I want to thank you, though, to start. Thank you and an outstanding Office of Religious and Global Affairs for bringing us all together this evening.
As Shaarik said, the Secretary very much wanted to be here. He does have a good excuse for not joining us this evening. As many of you know, he hosted the Eid Reception last year. He has deep admiration for the work that religious and community leaders do to advance peace and promote inclusion all around the world.
And I have to say no one better exemplifies that mission than Shaarik, whose portfolio as a “Special Representative” to Muslim Communities includes just about everything except for sleep. (Laughter.)
Over the last year, Shaarik has traveled around the world to deepen our engagement with Muslim communities. He accompanied a delegation of American Muslim leaders to Brunei to make the case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that will cover nearly 40 percent of GDP with higher standards for labor, the environment, human rights, and intellectual property.
He also led a delegation to Indonesia, where he visited local religious schools in Jakarta, where girls learn alongside boys and the curriculum reflects Indonesia’s very proud tradition of faith and tolerance. And I had the opportunity to do the same thing, and it was truly a wonderful experience.
In fact, I believe that there are some members of the delegation that Shaarik led to Indonesia here tonight. And if so, would you please raise your hand, so we can thank you for your work as citizen diplomats. Thank you. (Applause.)
I think as many of you know, the tradition of showing respect for the holy month of Ramadan stretches back to the founding of our nation. The first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, hosted an Iftar at the White House after he became president. And Benjamin Franklin – for whom this room is named – helped to open a meetinghouse in Philadelphia that was available to people of all faiths, including Islam. Tonight, we have an opportunity to carry forward this important tradition by focusing on a truly extraordinary subject, one that speaks to the common spirit of humanity while cherishing its diversity of traditions, cultures, and faiths. And that is the power of storytelling and a celebration this evening of women storytellers within the Islamic faith.
Tonight, we have with us in this room authors, bloggers, filmmakers, television directors who shared their experiences and stories earlier this afternoon. And Shaarik was telling me about the roundtable discussion and – which he moderated – and he said when you have such extraordinary people, it’s really easy to be the moderator. You just sit back and let them do the talking. As these artists can attest, storytelling is one of the most powerful means of communication that we know. It is as varied and versatile as the human imagination. It can inspire faith or challenge belief. It can connect one generation to the next or build a bridge between people of different cultures. It can raise the voices of those who have been silenced, forgotten, marginalized, or simply not well understood.
Today, roughly one out of eight people on earth is a Muslim woman or girl. Their contributions – your contributions – to society are simply immeasurable, and yet they so often go untold. With your words, with your photographs, with your moving images, with your stories, with your shows, you’re changing that. You’re changing the way the world experiences and understands the many messages you have to convey.
Of course, stories are not only being told every day; they are being lived every day. Among our guests tonight is a very special person. Yumna Al-Naser is from Daraa in Syria. She’s 10 years old. About two years ago, a government missile slammed into her house, setting it afire and killing her brother, sister, aunt, grandmother, and her great grandmother. But Yumna survived. She suffered grievous injuries, but she survived. She was initially treated in the region but then was brought to Texas two months ago, where she had surgeries to save her life and improve her health.
No single word can capture Yumna’s strength, her bravery, her resilience, and something that I saw a short while ago when we met: her inner light. But, on an evening like this, I think the word “blessed” comes to mind. We are honored that you could be with us tonight, and we’re thrilled that you’re going to be ready to rejoin your loved ones in Daraa early next year. So let me just say thank you. Thank you for being here. (Applause.)
I also want to thank the Shriners Hospital in Galveston for opening its doors to Yumna and to other children injured in Syria, and to the Syrian Institute for Progress, an American NGO led by Saed Moujtahed and Susan Baaj, whose dedication makes these badly needed programs possible. Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)
Yumna’s story and those of Syrian children still living in refugee camps or tents or shell-shocked homes after more than four years of violence is a vivid reminder of a lesson the world has never seemed quite able to learn. When leaders fail to resolve differences peacefully, the devastating consequences fall disproportionately on the innocent, those without power, those without voice. That’s why we must never squander an opportunity to avoid or prevent such tragedies from taking place.
That’s a lesson that I think about every day and that reinforces the urgency of the diplomatic mission of the State Department. It’s a lesson brought to life by the stories that many Muslim women are telling and have to tell. And it’s a lesson that we must continue to apply in all that we do as citizens, as neighbors, as public officials, as civil and religious leaders, and as very different people who have some very important things in common, including, quite simply, our humanity, our mortality, and a reverence for the sacred and irreplaceable nature of every single human life.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce a video from the Secretary of State, who wanted to ensure he had the opportunity to say thank you. (Applause.)
“Hello, everyone. Assalamu alaikum and Eid Mubarak to all of you.
“I hope you have all had a very, very blessed Ramadan. I regret very much that I am not able to be with you in person this evening. But I am pleased that Deputy Secretary Blinken is able to step in and I know that Shaarik Zafar, our Special Representative to Muslim Communities, is going to do everything that he can to make you feel welcome.
“I’m particularly sorry that I’m not able to meet with the women storytellers who are our very special guests this evening, but I want to encourage them in their extraordinary efforts. Whether through novels, reporting, television, film, or social media, there is an enormous need for greater understanding about the lives, ideas, concerns, and social and intellectual contributions of Muslim women. They, as much as anyone on Earth, have an important and timely story to tell.
“As you may know, the reason that I’m not with you this evening is that I am on Capitol Hill talking to members of the U.S. Senate about the deal the international community has developed to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. There are many complex questions related to this plan, and all of them, I promise you, have good answers. But there is also a larger question about whether people from vastly different backgrounds and belief systems can nevertheless cooperate when necessary in order to make the world safer.
“I will tell you, quite frankly, I believe in that possibility – not naively; with verification, with a program such as that which we’ve laid out. But if I didn’t, I’m not sure that I’d be able to get out of bed in the morning to do my job. And I suspect that the brilliant storytellers who are with you tonight are driven by a comparable faith in possibilities – because without the hope for progress that comes through cooperation, why bother to tell stories at all?
“The room in which you are gathered this evening was named for Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Franklin had a lot of interesting qualities, and he thought about almost everything, including religion. He declared his firm belief in “one God who made all things.” And he stated his conviction that the most acceptable service humans could possibly perform in the eyes of the Creator was to do right by one another.
“I actually can’t think of a better thought than that to leave with you tonight. Every single religion operates by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“May God Bless you all and keep you safe.”