The White House Iftar: Inclusion or Delusion?

National News


Some Say President's Remarks Were A 'Slap On the Face' to American Muslims


The annual White House iftar is billed as an opportunity to honor American Muslim achievements and contributions to society and allow American Muslim leaders to meet face to face with the President and some members of his administration.

The first White House Iftar was held in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, an envoy from Tunis. He was visiting the United States due to a tense dispute over piracy. This year’s iftar also became very tense over remarks the President made.

Held on Monday, July 14, 2014, this year's White House iftar is being called an insult to American Muslims due to the President's remarks on Israel's on-going bombardment and invasion of Gaza.

“Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.  And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens.  And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.  At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live,” said Obama as part of his almost 10 minute speech to the invitation only event which included diplomats, elected officials, and American-Muslims leaders and citizens. [Scroll down below to read the official White House transcript of the President's speech. -- TML]

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

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the organizations urging 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 and hypocrisy of the administration to host an "Iftar" and honoring a select few Muslims as well as a Pakistani-American from the “Ahmadiyya Muslim community” whose family was “mistreated because of their beliefs,” just days after a news report broke exposing the NSA's surveillance of national Muslim leaders like CAIR's Nihad Awad and Dr. Agha Saeed from the American Muslim Alliance.

Muslim Advocates, a legal and educational advocacy group based out of California released a statement saying 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 Muslims doing great things were invited to the White House to be acknowledged for their achievements inside their own communities.

Imam Zia Makhdoom of MakeSpace in Northern Virginia was in attendance and defended the presence of Muslims at the iftar. "#WhiteHouseIftar attendees are no #sellouts. I most certainly am not," posted Imam Zia Makhdoom on his Facebook page. Muslim bloggers and online commentators have been especially critical of the iftar attendees on social media where the debate continues to expand.

“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.

Dr. Maha Hilal is an Egyptian American activist. She completed her Ph.D from American University in Justice in Islamic Society and is one of the organizers of the iftar boycott. Her work at a number of human rights organizations including the Center for Victims of Torture and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and 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.

She conceptualized it as a Guantanamo related event but when the Intercept report on the NSA's  spying on American Muslim activists became public and the world witnessed another Israeli invasion of Gaza where hundreds of civilians are being killed, the idea to make the boycott a platform for American-Muslim grievances with the Obama administration came to the forefront.

The call for a boycott rippled through the American Muslim community. Sheikh Omar Suleiman, a popular speaker and Islamic scholar, revealed that he has declined the invitation in past years and will be boycotting the event.  “I publicly call upon our community to collectively boycott the #WhiteHouseIftar in protest of policy on #Gitmo, drone strikes, #Palestine, #NSAspying, Free Soltan, etc.  I also support a peaceful demonstration [near the White House] simultaneous to the Iftar … I hope that those who still choose to go strongly voice our grievances,” Suleiman posted on his widely followed Facebook page.

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. Professor Omid Safi, Duke University and Dr. Hatem Bazian, American Muslims for Palestine and Co-Founder of Zaytuna College also signed on the letter making clear that they will not break fast with the Obama Administration. They collected a 100 signatures. They were met with  what they said were unprofessional responses from many mainstream Muslim organizations.

Also, on the same day as the White House iftar, the Huffington Post published an editorial by Mariam Abu-Ali titled “Another White House Iftar, Another Ramadan Without My Brother.”

Mariam Abu-Ali is the sister of Northern Virginia's Ahmed Abu-Ali whose high profile “war on terror” case is widely considered a miscarriage of justice by American Muslims and many prominent civil and human rights organizations. An American citizen, Ahmed Abu-Ali was arrested in June 2003 while studying at the University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia. For two years he was held by Saudi authorities without charges, eventually being transferred to US custody to face charges of conspiring to assassinate then President George W. Bush. The only evidence provided was a taped confession from his Saudi jailers which Abu-Ali maintained was given after months of torture. “The White House iftar is a slap in the face to those in the Muslim community who have been victims of U.S. civil-rights and human-rights abuses,” wrote Mariam Abu-Ali.  [Scroll down for a link to her article -- TML]

According to critics and some of the iftar attendees, President Obama added insult to injury by inviting  Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

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

"@WhiteHouse for iftar dinner. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel's right to defend itself,” read Dermer’s tweet from the iftar.

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

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.  I attended to meet and learn from my peers across the country. 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 told the Muslim Link.

Patel describes the mood of the room as sober throughout the evening. He describes a heavy silence fell over the entire room upon the President's remarks. Others described it as an ambush. Attendees did engage with the President in conversation about his comments, says Patel, as he watched several 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 was taking place outside along with a protest against the iftar. With help from Code Pink and Witness Against Torture, they raised their voices against the duplicity.

Ali Mahmoud, the founder of Alif Lam Meem (the first fraternity for Muslims in mainstream universities) attended the White House iftar. “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,” he wrote under a photo of himself at the iftar.

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

The Muslim Public Affairs Council Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati did not attend the event,  but supported the effort annual iftar he helped revive under President Bill Clinton. His wife, Laila Al-Marayati, who heads KinderUSA, a charity which helps Palestinian refugees, declined the invitation to the State Department Iftar next week.  In attendance were Haris Tarin, who heads MPAC’s Washington chapter and Hoda El Shishtawy, National Policy Analyst.

ISNA President Imam Mohamed Hagmagid (also Imam of the ADAMS center in Northern Virginia) and representatives of MPAC did not respond to inquiries from 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, told Guardian journalist Spencer Ackerman. Sulahry said Obama was non-committal, but displayed "a clear willingness to discuss the issue."

A local social service agency was invited but did not 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 nonprofit leaders, it was a time to network with each other and with elected officials, a chance 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, said 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, she said.

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, [I've spent] my entire life as an American Muslim 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 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, one of the boycott initiators, said 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 councilor 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?”

After the backlash surrounding the event, MPAC issued a statement that they found the remarks appalling. However, critics said these apologies are a waste of time.

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

This issue is bigger than the iftar, she said. Engagement should be a priority and communities need to hold organizations accountable for 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.

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?



“It was supposed to be an evening where the American President showed respect to a religious community, to the millions of American Muslims who have been fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan.

“It was supposed to be a political expression of respect. It ended up being a political instrumentalisation of (voluntarily) trapped Muslim leaders listening to President Obama justify the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians, declaring Israel has the right to defend itself. One wonders what is the relationship between the Iftar celebration and Israel ? What is the US administration's implicit-explicit intention in putting the Muslim leaders in such an embarrassing situation? To test their loyalty or rather their capacity to compromise or betray? They obviously remained silent.

“The Israeli ambassador, Mr. Ron Dermer, also invited (why?), was actually the first to speak. One must remember what he said about Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims : Palestinians have "a cultural tendency towards belligerency" that is "deeply embedded in the culture of the Arab world and its foremost religion". This is the man who was invited to celebrate Iftar with the Muslims meanwhile his Government is destroying Gaza. From the White House he tweeted, triumphantly : "@WhiteHouse for Iftar dinner. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel's right to defend itself."

“Obviously Muslim leaders didn't tweet. It was enough of an honor for them to be invited to the White House and to have met the President. An honor, truly, dear Muslim leaders? Ordinary Muslims (and proponents of justice and dignity from other religions) in the US and around the world, as well as Palestinians, might think differently.”


Rep. Ellison Statement on Boycott of White House Iftar Dinner

Jul 14, 2014 - Press Release

WASHINGTON—Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) released the following statement today after groups attempted to organize a boycott of the White House Iftar dinner.

“I’m looking forward to visiting with President Obama at the White House Iftar. While I certainly share the concerns of the people who have called for the boycott, I disagree with the tactic. It will not close Guantanamo Bay, guarantee a cease-fire between Israel and Palestine or undo the NSA’s targeting of Muslims.

“The leaders of the Montgomery Bus boycott and the United Farm Workers’ boycotts didn’t have the opportunity to speak directly to the White House about the issues affecting their communities. Boycotting was one of the few tools on the table at that time. A boycott of the White House Iftar dinner tonight won't help advance an agenda on the policy matters we care about.  If the boycott was successful and no Muslims showed up, then no one would talk about the issues on behalf of our community.

“Precisely because the people adversely affected by these policies cannot be present, passionate and articulate members of the community must be there tonight.”


Remarks by The President at the Annual Iftar Dinner, July 14, 2014

East Room – 9:03 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Good evening everyone and welcome to the White House.  Every year, our Iftar is a chance to join in fellowship with friends, old and new, and to celebrate the incredible diversity of our great nation.  And I want to recognize members of our diplomatic corps who are here -- and it’s wonderful to have you back -- as well as members of Congress who are joining us here tonight.  We have leaders from my administration.  And most importantly, we welcome Muslim Americans from across the country.  So I want to thank you all for being here -- Ramadan Kareem.  It’s late.  You’re hungry.  I will be brief.  (Laughter.)       

Tonight, we honor the traditions of one of the world’s great faiths.  For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to reflect and to remember that discipline and devotion is the essence of a life of faith.  And for all of us, whatever our faiths, Ramadan is a reminder of just how much we share.  The values of peace and charity, the importance of family and community -- these are universal values.  The command to love one another, to uphold justice, and to care for the least among us -- these are common threads in our faith traditions.

Tonight we reaffirm a simple truth.  Fundamental to the character of our country is our freedom of religion -- the right to practice our faith as we choose, to change our faith if we choose, or to practice no faith at all and to do all this free from fear of.  All of us are deserving of an equal opportunity to thrive -- no matter who we are, what we look like, what we believe, or how we pray.  And all of us have an obligation to do our part -- to help others overcome barriers, to reverse the injustice of inequality and to help more of our fellow citizens share in the promise of America.

In Islam, there is a hadith that says God helps the servant as long as the servant helps his brother.  In other words, we’re summoned to serve and lift up one another, and that’s the lesson of several of our guests here tonight.

I’m just going to mention a couple.  Kelly Carlisle served our country in the Navy.  And more recently, she founded Acta Non Verba -- deeds, not words.  And in a tough part of Oakland, California, she started an urban farm where local children can grow and sell fresh food, which Michelle would appreciate very much.  (Laughter.)  Then, Kelly deposits 100 percent of the profits they earn into individual savings accounts for those children, because studies show that a child with a savings account is more likely to attend college.  So thanks to Kelly, these boys and girls are not only learning the value of hard work at an early age, they’re changing how they think about themselves and opening their minds to what’s possible in their lives.  So we want to thank Kelly for that great work.  (Applause.)

Growing up in Pakistan, Muhammed Chaudhry and his family -- part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community -- were mistreated because of their beliefs.  They immigrated to America, and in California, Muhammed saw world-changing technologies being launched in the same neighborhoods where too many students struggled just to stay in school.  Today, he runs a foundation that works with schools, parents and local IT startups to better prepare students to embrace science and math.  And they’ve started turning the tables -- thanks to Muhammed’s foundation, so many of these students are now taking classes that put them on track for college.  So we want to thank Muhammed for being such a great example.  (Applause.)        

And you see the kind of impact Muhammed’s work can have -- how each generation can help bring along the next -- in young people like Aala Mohamed.  Aala’s family immigrated to the United States from Sudan.  Both her parents worked several jobs in order to send her to a good high school in Chicago, a great town.  I added that.  That’s not in the remarks.  (Laughter.)  But, according to Aala, applying for college was a depressing time, because she didn’t know what opportunities were out there and she didn’t know how her family would pay for her college.

But with the help of a nonprofit that focuses on young people like her, she set her sights high.  She earned admission to Yale, which I understand is quite good.  (Laughter.)  She graduated with a double major.  Today she works in finance, and now she’s paying it forward by developing a curriculum to inspire Muslim high school students, especially girls, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.  So we want to thank Aala for that.  (Applause.)

So these three individuals are just an example of the wonderful work that is done.  You’ve made it your mission, each in your own way, to help others overcome barriers and to push back on those forces of inequality and to help the next generation share in the American Dream.  These folks realize that sometimes all a young person needs is knowing that somebody cares about them and believes in them.  I know I’m only here because a few people -- my mother and my grandparents and dedicated teachers -- took time to invest in me.

And so, we’ve got to do everything in our power -- as a nation and as individuals -- to make sure more Americans have the opportunity to move ahead and move up, whether it’s good wages that reward hard work, good jobs that help provide for a career and a family, or the education that allows every child to realize his potential or her God-given potential.  And that’s my mission as President.  I want to thank all of those here tonight who in their respective communities try to do the same thing.

And, finally, tonight reminds us of our responsibilities to each other beyond our borders, as well as within.  Even as we celebrate all that we have in common, we know that in too many corners of the world we see violence and terror of those who would destroy rather than build.  These are particularly difficult times in the Middle East.  In Syria, the Assad regime continues its brutality against the Syrian people, and so we continue to help Syrians stand up to Assad and deal with the humanitarian crisis and push back against extremists.  In Iraq, where ISIL’s attacks on civilians and destruction of religious sites seek to inflame sectarian tensions, we continue to call for a new government that can unite Iraqis and show all communities in Iraq that they can advance their aspirations through the political process. 

Separately, the pictures we are seeing in Gaza and Israel are heart wrenching.  People here in the United States care deeply about what’s happening there, and I know there are strong views, as well as differences, about how we should move forward, which is part of American democracy.  We welcome that debate.  That makes us stronger.

Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.  And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens.  And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.  At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live.

I believe further escalation benefits no one, least of all the Israeli and the Palestinian people.  So we’re going to continue doing everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire.  We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal, which we hope can restore the calm that we’ve been seeking.  More broadly, however, the situation in Gaza reminds us again that the status quo is unsustainable and that the only path to true security is a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, where differences are resolved peacefully and in ways that respect the dignity of all people.

Here at home, even as we’re vigilant in ensuring our security, we have to continue to remain true to our highest ideals.  In the United States of America, there is no place for false divisions between races and religions.  We are all Americans, equal in rights and dignity, and no one should ever be targeted or disparaged because of their faith.  And that, too, is what makes us stronger.

So tonight, as we gather to celebrate Ramadan, let’s renew our obligations to one another.  Like Kelly and Muhammed and Aala, let’s help lift up our neighbors so more people share in the American Dream.  Let’s commit ourselves -- as nations and as individuals -- to pursue the peace we seek in our world.  And let’s remember whatever our faith, we are servants of God, summoned to care for our brothers and sisters.  So God bless you all, God bless America, and may you and your families have a blessed Ramadan.

That went a little longer than I expected, but please get back to the soup, which I understand is quite good.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

See also:

Another White House Iftar, Another Ramadan Without My Brother by Mariam Abu-Ali, Huffington Post, July 14, 2014

Obama humiliates Muslim guests at White House Ramadan event, endorses Israel’s Gaza assault and NSA surveillance by Max Blumenthal

Why I, a Palestinian-American Muslim, went to the White House Iftar and what I learned by Tarik Takkesh on July 18, 2014