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.
— Omar Suleiman (@omarsuleiman504) July 13, 2014
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.