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A Date with Obama | The White House Iftar: Inclusion or Delusion

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By Hena Zuberi

The White House Iftar —An opportunity to honor American Muslim achievements or an attempt to whitewash U.S crimes in Muslim countries by painting a flowery picture of their relationship with the American Muslims?

The first White House Iftar was held in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, an envoy from Tunis. He was visiting due to a tense dispute over piracy. This year’s iftar was just as tense, if not more.

The issue of whether to attend or not is certainly contentious, with vitriol from both sides spilling over, spoiling friendships and creating divides. There were calls for a boycott this year. Several scholars and activists signed the letter asking to protest against the  ‘amalgamation and institutionalization [of] War on Terror policies.’

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee which urged a boycott stated that “political engagement is important and having a seat at the table is crucial — but only when that seat is intended to amplify our voice as a community, not tokenize or subdue it.”

Many were appalled at the audacity of the administration to host an “Iftar” and try to honor a select few Muslims (including an Ahmadi) , while quietly violating the liberties,  spying and even killing other Muslims citizens. This was just days after the Intercept exposed the NSA’s surveillance of national Muslim leaders like CAIR’s Nihad Awad and Dr. Agha Saeed from the American Muslim Alliance.

Muslim Advocates, an advocacy group  based out of California, released a statement saying that they would attend the iftar, where they hoped to talk to officials ‘about the deeply troubling reports of the US government spying on American Muslims.’

Others were proud that outstanding Muslims were invited to the White House to be acknowledged for their achievements inside their own community.

“To condemn a young leader inside the Muslim community for attending a dinner hosted by the people, who if anything, have a huge influence on possibly ending the massacre occurring in Palestine, is absolutely preposterous,” commented a university student.

The Call to Boycott

Dr. Maha Hilal is an Egyptian American activist; she completed her Ph.D from American University in Justice, Law and Society. She is one of the organizers of the boycott. Her work at a number of human rights organizations includes the Center for Victims of Torture and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. In addition, her experience working with survivors of trauma as a Case Manager with the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition makes Guantanamo a priority for her. She was planning a vigil for torture victims in Ramadan.

Hilal initially conceptualized the vigil as a Guantanamo related event, but then the Intercept report on NSA spying became public and the world witnessed horror at the recent invasion of the Gaza Strip, that has now claimed 200 745 lives.

This brought several issues that the American Muslim community has with the Obama administration to the helm and the idea emerged to make the boycott a platform for American Muslim grievances.

Along with Dr Hilal, Muhammed Malik, Former Executive Director of CAIR-South Florida, Ramah Kudaimi, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and Darakshan Raja were some of the activists calling for a boycott. At first they were dismissed as online activists without credibility.

The call for boycott rippled through the American Muslim community. Sh Omar Soleiman, a popular speaker and Islamic scholar, revealed that he has declined the invitation in past years and will be boycotting the event.

Professor Omid Safi, Duke University and Dr. Hatem Bazian, American Muslims for Palestine and Co-Founder Zaytuna College also signed on the letter making clear that they will not break fast with the Obama Administration.

They collected 400 hundred signatures. They were met with what they call unprofessional responses from many mainstream Muslim organizations.

Activists decided on a multi-pronged approach: along with the letter urging for the boycott they brought the story of Mariam Abu-Ali to the Huffington Post. Mariam’s brother Ahmed Abu-Ali, a 22-year old student at the University of Madinah, was arrested and subsequently given life in solitary confinement for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate former President George Bush. The Saudi government, apparently at the behest of the U.S government, detained him without charges. According to Abu-Ali, the only evidence admitted in court was a videotape of a coerced confession obtained through two years of torture  in a Saudi Arabian prison.

Mariam Abu-Ali writes in the Huffington Post, ”Victims like us will never get invited to the White House to tell our story. I can only hope that there will be those invitees who refuse to exonerate the cruelty of such policies and make a statement to that effect when declining to attend.”

The Attendees Recount

Salim Patel serves as an elected Commissioner on the Board of Education for the City of Passaic, NJ.  It is the 6th largest school district in the state and it ranks as one of the lowest in terms of per capita income.  He is also the Chairman of a charity called SMILE that manages a domestic fund entitled Zakat Inspired, envisioning building community and alleviating poverty. His motivation for attending the iftar was to be in a room full of inspirational leaders and activists from across the country to learn from them and their experiences.

“The ‘political’ iftar is something quite customary in New Jersey and they are those rare moments where there are a diversity of leaders coming together in one room.  The political iftars I attended throughout the years in NJ have allowed many of us in attendance to collaborate, lobby, influence, agitate at a much larger scale and capacity if we did not create the bonds and relationships that we did by meeting at these functions. New Jersey has two Muslim judges appointed under two separate governors – there is a reason for that,” he shares with the Muslim Link.

If emotions were strong before the iftar, after the President’s Obama’s remarks on Gaza and the inclusion of the Israeli Prime Minister close confidante, Ambassador Ron Dermer, they burned up Ramadan nights.

Some described it as an ambush. The President spoke about common faith traditions and freedom of religion, recognized some attendees by name, and then stated that no country can accept rocket being fired into its land.  When he spoke about ‘unacceptable’ attacks— he was talking about those against Israel.

Patel describes the mood of the room as sober throughout the evening.

He recounts a heavy silence fell over the entire room upon the President’s remarks.

The audience did applaud the speech and a sigh of relief is audible heard after the President made a quip about the soup. Tarik Takkesh was one attendee who refused to applaud, he writes about his experience here. Some used derogatory terms such as ‘sellouts’ to describe the attendees after news about the Israeli ambassador’s attendance spread.

Live tweeting from the event, the Ambassador used his social media to let the world know that the President stood by the official narrative.


This stirred reactions across the world for Muslims who felt humiliated and horrified as they watched news reports of four boys murdered by  Israeli missiles as they played soccer on the beach near their family’s boat.

Attendees did engage with the President in conversation about his comments, says Patel, as he watched some impassioned encounters.

As for the presence of the Israeli Ambassador being uncomfortable, Patel says that it is difficult to know who or who is not in attendance.  “Once seated it is difficult to roam the room, and one is usually confined to conversation to the guests at their table,” he shared.

As the attendees were breaking their fasts inside, a vigil for Guantanamo prisoners and victims of the siege in Gaza were being commemorated outside along with protest against the iftar. With help from Code Pink and Witness Against Torture, they raised their voices against the duplicity.

Imam Zia Makhdoom of MakeSpace, alternate spiritual space for young Muslim professionals,  was in attendance and defended the attendees, many who have served the community,  when people called them derogatory names on social media. “#WhiteHouseIftar attendees are no #sellouts. I most certainly am not,” posted Imam Zia on his Facebook page

Ali Mahmoud, the founder of Alif Lam Meem (the first fraternity for Muslims in mainstream universities) was in attendance.  He commented that “in the future and with more dialogue, I think we can come closer to a unified and practical solution to make things better. A real solution will take time, thinking, and patience. I’m glad we had Muslims who attended, and I’m glad we had Muslims protesting it. We need to be everywhere,” under a photo of himself at the iftar.

The Need for Research and Engagement

“We need more research in our communities. Several of our organizations are disengaged from the community, from the average American Muslim who shops at the halal stores, own small businesses and work blue collar jobs,” says Dr Hilal.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati did not attend the event,  but supported the effort as he was involved in reviving the iftar under President Bill Clinton. His wife, Laila Al-Marayati, who heads KinderUSA, a charity which helps Palestinian refugees, has declined the invitation to the now postponed State Department Iftar.

In attendance was Haris Tarin, who heads MPAC’s Washington chapter and Hoda El Shishtawy, National Policy Analyst.

Imam Magid of ISNA and representatives of MPAC were unavailable to comment to the Muslim Link.

Muslim Advocates spoke to the Guardian.

“I specifically asked the president if he would meet with us to discuss NSA spying on the American Muslim community. The president seemed to perk up and proceeded to discuss the issue, saying that he takes it very seriously,” Junaid Sulahry, the outreach manager for Muslim Advocates, a legal and civil rights group shares with The Guardian’s journalist Spencer Ackerman.

Sulahry said, Obama was non-committal, but displayed “a clear willingness to discuss the issue.”

Journalist Max Blumenthal, a prominent writer on Palestine-Israel,  spoke to Ali Kurnaz, the central regional director for the Florida-based Emerge USA.

Kurnaz told Blumenthal that Dermer spent the evening isolated in the White House’s Green Room adjacent to the main reception area. According to Kurnaz, none of the activists invited to the dinner approached him.

A local social service agency was invited and does not want to give a public statement because of how political the topic has become. As an American agency they were being recognized for their contributions to low income families.

For some heads of nonprofits, it is a time to network with each other and with elected officials. A chance that they normally do not get.

These are the agencies and nonprofits that we can excuse for wanting to attend as they work to save lives in the US and may not get a solid chance to meet elected officials, says Hilal. Her umbrage is with those Muslim organizations who consistently work on policy issues with the government. “They should have boycotted,” and at the minimum they should have walked out after Obama’s deeply humiliating speech.

According to some attendees, people were astonished by the remarks, especially the closing words of President Obama’s speech.

Manal Omar, an American of Palestinian origin, an Associate Vice-President for the Middle East and Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace is unapologetic of her decision to attend the event.”There are two separate issues which is engagement as American Muslims, and our position on US foreign policy especially in the wake of humanitarian crisis. I don’t think the two have to be mutually inclusive on our stances. I believe in engagement, [spent] my entire life as an American Muslims calling for engagement and am proud to have been at the White House in 1996 when Clinton first made this initiative, and proud to attend with Obama this year.”

Omar says that she is not a cheap date as she posted photos of herself passionately talking to the President. “An Iftar does not buy our silence.”

She took her two minutes with the President to emphasize that the people of Gaza (especially the women and children) should not be forgotten. “I asked the President to stop talking about this as if it was a war between equal powers, and to remember that there is a crucial issue of the disproportionate use of force and collective punishment, which violates international law. Not only did the President listen, but also he engaged in a discussion.”

Dr Hilal says that people are acting like the President is not aware of the current situation.”He is aware and he is attuned to those policies- we are not talking about [speaking] to your local city councillor and a park permit —$3 billion worth of foreign aid is at stake here.”

What Dr Hilal would like to ask the attendees is “What did you tell the president that he was not aware of?”

People who attended say that it is a necessity and that American Muslims should have a seat at the table need to know the rules of engagement, say critics.

Engagement comes with Consistency

After the backlash surrounding the event, MPAC issued a statement that they found the remarks appalling. They have also launched the 10-100-100 campaign.

These organizations are in frequent contact with the government thus critics find calls for apologies a waste of time.

“Given that they didn’t walked out, calling for a joint meeting with President Obama, Eric Holder, and [agencies] —that is a concrete, substantive way to engage the concern,” says Dr Hilal.

This issue is bigger than the iftar, she says. Engagement should be a priority and communities need to hold organizations accountable about what issues are being combated. “How do organization make decisions about which issues to pursue?” she asks.  Many mainstream Muslim organizations aren’t making a case for the issues they choose to work on.

“Where are their assessments?” says the researcher, insisting that increasingly these organizations do not speak for young American Muslims.

Obama has yet to visit a masjid in the United States since he was elected. Muslims realize that they cannot combat the calibre lobbying of groups, such as AIPAC, without a lot more organizing, and bold, effective advocacy.

Amongst boycott calls, one suggestion floating around is that next year American Muslim organizations should convene and hold a unity iftar, set the agenda and invite the President on their own terms.

Will the President save the date?

A version of this article was first published in the Muslim Link newspaper.

 

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: A Date with Obama| The White House Iftar: Inclusion or Delusion – MuslimMatters | TAKE BACK THE MAJORITY

  2. Avatar

    ZAI

    July 25, 2014 at 5:28 PM

    I dunno about the attend/don’t attend argument. It’s a complex issue and both sides
    make good arguments. I do know though, that Obama’s “lecture” has gotta be one
    of the rudest, ill-timed things I’ve ever heard of….especially at a formal function. Who the
    heck invites guests to their homes and then proceeds to lecture them, shun their stance on
    things and talk down to them? It’s like calling my neighbor over for dinner and telling him
    he deserved to have his car stolen. It was absurd and I was aghast at that low level of decorum.
    I think it all comes down to him being very aware of the “slanders” thrown at him that he’s Muslim
    ,sympathetic to Muslims or not pro-Israel enough….so he’s more Catholic than the Pope when
    dealing with Muslims.

    As Muslim-Americans…I think we gotta face the reality that this system is all about money.
    We’re just not gonna be able to compete with the Israel lobby any time soon in that arena….or
    Right-wing Christians, weapons industry, oil companies for that matter. All we really have is
    our votes and maybe it’s time to send the Democratic party a message already. We vote for
    them and they shun us and take us for granted anyway. Maybe we vote as a block and put
    a Republican in office….not that they are better for us, even worse…but perhaps the shock
    of losing an election and knowing it was a Muslim bloc vote that cost them Florida, Virginia or Ohio will
    send Democrats the message that they can’t just kick us around anymore while taking our votes
    for granted.

    • Avatar

      GC

      July 26, 2014 at 7:51 AM

      It is war and in wars the powerful make money.

      Gaza sits on one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the region and Israel wants complete ownership of this reserve to exploit even more from the people of the middle east.

  3. Pingback: A Date with Obama | The White House Iftar: Inclusion or Delusion – MuslimMatters | TAKE BACK THE MAJORITY

  4. Avatar

    Hamza 21

    July 26, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    “one suggestion floating around is that next year American Muslim organizations should convene and hold a unity iftar, set the agenda and invite the President on their own terms.”

    That is definitely the way forward. Dr Hilal’s comment ” “What did you tell the president that he was not aware of?”” can not be underestimated nor overstated. Does any body really think a short talk with President will change policy? Especially a short chat with person who will out of power in less than 2 years. The last years of an presidency are nearly always lame duck sessions where the sitting President doesn’t undertake any groundbreaking legislation that alters status quo policy. It’s foolish to believe you can engage the president to radically alter policy. The engagement is with people, the masses, not politicians. Once the people expect anyone who represents them to oppose the oppressive policy of the government than and only then can policy change.

  5. Avatar

    Hyde

    July 26, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    First if all Omid Safi, a progressive burnout should not be even included in any list. Second of all if there was ever a time a to throw a shoe…Lastly, why are Muslim so forward in displaying housesalvish mentality ?

  6. Pingback: American Muslims, Gaza, and the White House Iftar: Do Protests Matter » MuslimMatters.org

  7. Pingback: Baroness Warsi’s Resignation: An Effective Display of Oppositional Politics » MuslimMatters.org

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Imam Omar Suleiman made a special appearance at a Texas rally for the supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. In his speech this February 16th, Imam Omar Suleiman called for “[a]n America of safety, dignity, love and unity. An America where we uplift our most vulnerable, celebrate our diversity, and unlock our collective genius.”

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You can read my article on voting here in which I lay out those principles.”

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Coronavirus And The Impetus To Close The Chinese-Run Concentration Camps

My Appeal to the International Community to Save the Lives of 3+ Million Uyghurs in China’s Concentration Camps

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According to Dr. Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher based in Germany who has testified on several occasions on Capitol Hill, the concentration camps in East Turkestan number up to 1,400 (8 Nov 2019, [1]). It has been estimated that the number of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities being held in those concentration camps can add up to more than 3 million.

On February 5th, 2020, when the official Chinese government’s media were reporting that coronavirus death toll on mainland China was 600 – 700 [2], Tencent briefly listed 154,023 infections and 24,589 deaths from Wuhan coronavirus [3]. That is, the actual death toll is about 40 times higher than what the Chinese government reported. East Turkestan (known as Xinjiang) is far from the epicenter of the outbreak and just 55 cases have been reported in the region so far [4]. We can easily believe that the actual number of the people who fell victim to coronavirus in East Turkestan is tens of times more than the above figure.

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There is a real reason to fear a rapid spread of coronavirus in the controversial Chinese camps. “The virus spreads from person to person through droplets disseminated by sneezing or coughing, and confining large groups of people together, possibly without adequate access to germ-killing soap and water, will increase the likelihood of an outbreak.” [4] 

I have started to panic. Most Uyghurs in the United States have families there, and they are dealing with the camps and the virus, and we do not know if they have enough to eat, have masks and enough heat to survive.

“If the international community fails to pressure China to take adequate actions to prevent outbreaks in the region, the nature of its mass network of concentration and forced labor camps will add an entirely new dimension to China’s ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs.” [5]

“Uyghurs in the diaspora fear if the virus isn’t already in the camps, when it does reach them, the consequences will be catastrophic, leading to mass outbreaks and high mortalities very quickly given reports of overcrowding, starvation, forced labor, sexual abuse and torture in the camps. As China has largely ignored the issue of the virus spreading in the region and its crimes against humanity in the region are ongoing, it’s unlikely the Chinese government will allocate resources to address the issue.” [5]

I call for:

  1. UN to send a delegation to the region to find out if the concentration camp detainees are being provided with enough food and heat to survive.
  2. WHO to send a delegation to the region to evaluate the spread of the virus, assess the risks in the camps and take all measures necessary to prevent mass outbreaks and deaths. 
  3. WHO, the UN, international human rights groups, national governments and the rest of the international community to pressure China to close the camps and release the millions detained immediately as part of the global response to the coronavirus outbreak.
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[1] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html

[2]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/cloneofcloneofchina-coronavirus-outbreak-latest–200207231158175.html

[3]https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3871594?fbclid=IwAR1k3x27tW2jNmmQzbaNOWtciIwlP3z70GWvj2XcRhestwB6T6l16pSqL18

[4] https://www.france24.com/en/20200212-exiled-uighurs-fear-spread-of-coronavirus-in-china-camps

[5]https://www.change.org/p/demand-china-release-3-million-uyghurs-before-coronavirus-outbreaks-in-concentration-camps?utm_content=cl_sharecopy_20183581_en-CA%3Av2&recruiter=53261213&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition

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