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Dr. Hamre's Remarks at the Interfaith Iftar Dinner, Thursday, January 22, 1998

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre
January 22, 1998

Deputy Secretary Hamre: Thank you, and peace be with all of you. Thank you. I thought a lot about coming tonight when I was asked to speak. Rather than just give you a pep talk that any military person would give to a gathering, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to say some things that I feel very strongly, very much in my heart, about all of you.

First of all, I would like to say what an enormous privilege it is for me to have been invited to come, to be included in this Iftar. Unlike those who don't have a background in understanding Islam -- and of course that's most Americans -- I had a brief opportunity when I spent time in a seminary to study (Islam)... I understand how important this evening is. I understand how important the celebration of Ramadan is. This is, after all, one of the five pillars of your faith. This is an enormously important evening, and quite an honor to be asked to participate. So I sincerely thank you. I am deeply honored.

May I share with you a story which really informs a lot of my thinking about coming tonight? It's a story from my childhood.

I grew up in a very small town in South Dakota. Living outside of this town at a large farmstead is a colony of Hutterites. I don't know if you know who Hutterites are. Hutterites are a religious community, usually very small. They are followers of a man named Jakob Huter who was a early reformer, a rebel against the Catholic Church in the 1500s. His followers were chased out of Europe. They first went to Russia, and then after a series of pogroms there, they were chased out again. They migrated to the United States and settled all through the Midwest. One of these colonies settled in my hometown.

They're much like Amish, except that they live in almost a monastic setting. This small group of Hutterites do the most unusual thing. They raise turkeys and geese for the rabbis of Chicago to provide kosher food for Jewish homes in Chicago.

My father, who is a banker, asked one of these rabbis, how they came to this arrangement. There couldn't be two more dissimilar religious communities in the world between Orthodox Jews in Chicago and these Hutterites in South Dakota. The rabbi explained that the Hutterites live by rules, and they understand rules. "They don't understand why the kosher dietary rules are sacred to us, but they understand the importance of rules, and we trust them."

Now that statement has lived with me for a very, very long time. Because, in many ways, it's the way I feel about coming to be with you tonight. I know that observing the month of Ramadan is one of the most important rules that Islam has. As I said, one of its five pillars. And Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, really has a very central, common ground. That is all three of these religious traditions have at their core a profound realization that man lives under the ethical authority created by God. That's the only way our lives make sense. And that's really what we share with you. We share that with you in a very profound way.

Tonight in breaking the day's fast, people who are not Muslim and who may not observe the rituals of denial that we have in the Christian tradition, for example, during Lent, probably don't understand how intense your emotions become during Ramadan and a period of denial. At the very time that you're saying no to these impulses, it is really serving to intensify your other senses, and your sense of closeness to God.

I know that during the period of Lent when I observe my denial routine... your mind is transported to an understanding of how much greater is God's meaning in your life. That's why it's such a powerful time.

As a Christian, I don't fully understand what Ramadan means to you, but I do understand how important it is to you. And I understand, coming from a religious tradition, that you are living in a profound way -- daily -- a life that's consistent with the ethical mandates that God has given you, and I honor that. That's what we all feel.

Tonight I am here to say how much I think we share with you in this. My Christian tradition comes from a tradition of commandments. The Jewish tradition comes from the tradition of Mitzvahs -- commandments, mandates. I think back to what the Old Testament prophet Micah said, "He hath showed you, old man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God." That's the kind of mandate, ethical mandate, that you live with and that we live with. We are brothers and sisters in that.

I thank you for letting me celebrate with you.

I think that as Muslims and as Christians, we understand what it means to live under a world of authority -- the authority that's been revealed to us by God. I believe as military people you understand that even more. Your days revolve around authority and a chain of command. That's why I think a good believer is a great soldier. We are partners and we are friends and we celebrate with our Islamic brothers and sisters tonight in this feast, and throughout the year. In an America that sometimes is too busy worrying about the latest fad in clothes, or the newest model of car or other material things, it is good to be with people who think in a broader way, who think about their relationship to God, who think about charity, alms giving, as one of the central mandates of life. This is a great thing. You're a great people to be with.

We celebrate this evening, and thank you. I am very grateful to have been invited to this Iftar. God bless you all.

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