You don't have to look far these days for evidence that Islam is becoming part of the American mainstream. Only last week, a Muslim hospital worker on the popular television series "E.R." announced to her supervisor that she was taking a break to pray. It's Ramadan, she explained, as if praying during the workday were the most natural thing in the world--which to Muslims, of course, it is.
Now the State Department is getting into the act: Earlier this week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sat down with American Muslim leaders for iftar, the ritual evening feast that signals the end of the day-long Ramadan fast. The meal, in an eighth-floor reception room at the State Department, was the first of its kind for an agency that has long been accused of insensitivity to Muslim concerns.
"There are a billion and a half Muslims in the world," Albright told her guests, who included national and local Muslim leaders as well as representatives of such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Muslim Council. "They are of many nationalities and live in virtually every corner of every continent. How can anyone apply a stereotype to a quarter of the globe's people?"
Albright made no specific mention of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a focal point of criticism by Muslim Americans, but she did promise to take account of their "legitimate concerns" in shaping department programs. She also acknowledged that Muslims are underrepresented in the State Department and vowed to recruit more.
Albright's guests broke their fast with dates and fruit juice, then--after sunset prayers--joined the secretary and other officials for a traditional meal of lentil soup, lamb and chicken with saffron rice, chocolate pastry and fruit. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to refrain from food, drink and sexual activity during daylight hours and--after iftar and their regular evening prayer--typically visit their local mosque for special readings from the Koran.
After the feast, Albright's guests pronounced themselves satisfied with the symbolism as well as the food.
"We appreciate the opportunity to meet with State Department officials in a social setting," CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said in a written statement. "This . . . can only serve to facilitate future political discussions on issues of importance to the American Muslim community."
THE STATE OF Y2K: The State Department will be busy on New Year's Eve. With a presence in 162 countries, the department will serve as a kind of global clearinghouse for information about Y2K-related threats--computer glitch or otherwise--to American lives and interests abroad.
More than 300 people have been trained to staff the department's operations center during the "rollover" period, which begins at 6 a.m. on Dec. 31. The department's press center will be staffed round the clock, and regular briefings will be held.
"Please understand that while we will do our best to provide all of you accurate and relevant information, we're just not going to be able to confirm or perhaps even to respond to every single reported Y2K development around the globe," cautioned Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state, in a briefing for reporters earlier this week. "We will focus our attention and our work on trends and general situations."
HYPER-SENSITIVE: Much has been made in foreign policy circles about the tendency of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine to refer to the United States as a "hyperpower." To American ears, at least, it sounds like an insult.
Not so, says French Embassy spokesman Francois Delattre.
"The prefix hyper in French simply designates something that is very big (as in hypermarche, which is bigger than supermarche)" Delattre wrote in a recent letter to Commentary magazine. "There is nothing negative or critical in the phrase. Quite the contrary: The corresponding English is 'sole remaining superpower.' "
Albright, at least, has kept her sense of humor on the subject. Her spokesman reports that she recently began a phone conversation with Vedrine by announcing, "This is hyper-Madeleine."