Iftar Wars?: To Attend or Not To Attend - updated 7/29

Iftar Wars?: To Attend or Not To Attend

by Sheila Musaji

In previous years, the White House Iftar Provoked the Islamophobic Lunatic Fringe.  This year there is a very different group objecting to the White House Iftar, the State Dept. Iftar, and in fact Muslims attending any government sponsored Iftars. 

Two articles with different points of view lay out the basic arguments, and seem to have been the first two to open this discussion.  The first, by Omid Safi A Call to Conscience: Boycotting the State Department and White House Ramadan Iftars calls for Muslims to boycott the Iftar until U.S. Government Policies change.  The second, by Aziz Poonawala Honored to be invited to the State Department Iftar – and grateful for the #WhiteHouseIftar lays out reasons he believes Muslims should continue to interact.

Both of these articles are reasoned positions and open a debate.  They both make points worth considering.  Opening a discussion on the pros and cons of attending such events is useful, although opening that discussion at the last minute is not going to make any difference one way or another for this year’s Iftar’s.

The discussion began in a civil manner, and Omid Safi even included this statement in his article:

“I should mention that disagreement among scholars and leaders is always seen in Islam as a sign of mercy from God.  I do not intend to cast any aspersion upon the character of those who do decide to attend.  Whether they choose to do so or not is their own business, something between their own conscience and God.  If they choose to attend, I have no doubt that they have weighed it in their own conscience and decided that the collective communal benefit of attending outweighs the negatives.  That is their business.”

However, the discussion On Facebook and twitter, and on some blogs in response to these articles has become strident and judgmental, and has in some cases descended to name calling and insults.  Names like “house Muslim”, “traitors”,  and other egregious comments are being thrown around with no context.  This is inappropriate and truly surprising coming from some individuals who have themselves been on the receiving end of such baseless slurs in the past, and should know better.  Twitter is limited to 140 characters, not enough to spell out a coherent argument, pro or con.  If those who are angry about the decision of others want to contribute to a reasonable discussion, perhaps they should write a cogent article explaining their reasoning, and post the link on social media.  There are perfectly valid arguments on both sides of this issue.  Name calling doesn’t advance any argument.

That this discussion has become so bitter is very problematic, especially when Muslims have struggled so hard for so many years in order to have their voices heard.  There is a full time Islamophobia industry engaged in a concerted effort to marginalize American Muslim civic participation.  To attack those who are attempting to build bridges, forge relationships, and open channels of communication in such a spiteful manner is destructive for the entire community. 

The strident argument is now getting International attention.  Al Jazeera posted #WhiteHouseIftar:  US Muslims call for boycott of government-sponsored Ramadan celebrations which includes some of the tweets under that hashtag. 

Shahed Amanullah posted this statement:

In an hour, 200 people will be joining me at the State Department for Secretary Kerry’s iftar dinner. Those Americans who are attending represent the best of both America and the Muslim community - committed changemakers who have invested in their communities, bridge builders healing rifts between faiths, social entrepreneurs whose work has changed the lives of thousands. A large number of our guests are young social activists who have many years of work ahead of them. This tradition has helped cement the bonds between government and stakeholders who are committed to diplomacy, outreach, and public service, and I’m proud to help organize it this year.

Haris Tarin, one of those directly attacked posted the following on Facebook:

Why I am attending the Iftar at the White House!

“I was asked by some friends to comment on the trend of calling out American Muslims who are attending the Iftar at the White House. Here is why I am attending the @whitehouseiftar and I’ll make it short because I have to get back to my oped against Ray Kelly becoming the next Sec. of DHS.

First, I was taught by two great individuals, Dr. Maher Hathout and Sh. Abdullah bin Bayyiah, that it is not who you meet with, it’s your integrity in the meeting and the context that is important.

I am attending the White House Iftar because I received an invitation from my President, I will also be attending the briefing a couple hours before the iftar that will focus on serious policy issues including Gitmo, Syria, Egypt and Drones.

I will also be attending the Iftar at the State Department with Sec. Kerry — even though just yesterday my colleague Hoda Elshishtawy was at a State Dept meeting and conference critiquing policies on religious freedom and violent extremism.

I will also be attending the DHS Iftar with Sec. Napolitano — even though yesterday I went on record at the Huffington Post critiquing the TSA’s Ramadan message about American Muslims directed at the DHS.

I also attended the Iftar at the Pentagon with American Muslims in the Armed Services to ensure that they have a place to practice their faith freely.

And for those friends who have taken to twitter and Facebook with rude and outlandish messages about those of us who leave our families every night and ensure that we build the relationships that will hopefully allow us to impact policy one day, even though I vehemently disagree with you, I defend your right to be rude and call me a house Muslim or uncle Tom, because that is what makes our faith and country so great, and if you want to know what we are doing on Gitmo, Drones and everything else, you can ask rather than remain uninformed! If anyone wants, we can give you our Iftar itinerary for the month so that you know exactly whom we are having a meal with.”

I can’t help but wonder what exactly prompted such an angry discussion this particular year.  These Iftar’s have bee going on since 2001, and I don’t remember ever seeing this sort of discussion previously.

UPDATE 7/29/2013

There is still a lot of conversation about this issue.  Here are some of the articles written since this first became a heated debate.

Omid Safi wrote a follow up Beyond #WhiteHouseIftar: 6 points towards a principled action of solidarity - See more at: http://omidsafi.religionnews.com/2013/07/26/beyond/#sthash.2SNjOpKn.dpuf

...  In some ways, we have succeeded in having an important conversation, and it was gratifying to see sources like Aljazeera covering this debate.  In other ways, we have fallen short, with the typical name-calling questioning some of our qualifications to continue living in America (on one hand) and the typical name-calling of “House Muslims” (on the other).

It seems good to offer some preliminary thoughts on how to move beyond the current stalemate and reach for a more effective strategy.

... In the last thirty years, we as Muslims have had intense conversations about our multiple and overlapping identities as Americans and as Muslims. What this present conversation is about is something else: what kind of America we want to belong to:  an America that is an Empire, or a land of liberty and rights.  If it is the latter, words will not suffice.  We need to be participants in making that a reality.

Aziz Poonawalla wrote a follow up a Muslim American agenda: speaking truth to power and “standing firmly for justice” (Qur’an 4:135)

...  The issue of religious persecution is deeply personal for me. Members of my own Bohra community were the target of systematic, targeted murder in Pakistan last year. The Ummah, by and large, did not really rouse itself to care.
The truth is that many of those who lectured Muslim Americans as “traitors” and “house Muslims” for “denying the Ummah” in favor of the White House Iftar outreach devote most of their time to the “sexy” causes for Justice like drones, Gitmo, and of course the Palestinians. These are the issues that generate the most passion amongst the Muslim middle class in America. But if we make a simple tally of human lives, the calculus is skewed – far more Muslims suffer injustice and persecution at the hands of their Ummah brethren within Dar al-Islam than have ever suffered at the hands of the American Empire that Omid warns about.

Yes, we should stand for Justice. I criticized the drone warfare policy over three years ago, long before it was fashionable. More importantly, I have argued that Muslims should adopt a campaign against the doctrine of collateral damage in warfare, using the same moral arguments as those against land mines. But apart from critique, there is no analogy to be made with the civil rights movement as Omid tries to invoke, because these are injustices that are not subject to the sympathy and compassion of the American public. Bluntly, civil rights were about domestic oppression, whereas drones and Gitmo are about national security. And the actual victims of both are relatively small in number relative to the Muslim victims of injustice at the hands of their fellow Muslims. However, that latter injustice, though greater in scope, is not given prominence. Why? Is it because it is “easier” to blame America for the sicknesses of the Ummah rather than admit there is something rotten within? Or is it because of a reluctance to stand against “our kin” ? (as per Qur’an 4:135).

I fully agree with Omid that we as Muslim Americans should organize collectively and productively, following the example of the civil rights movement. But our target should not be foreign injustice, it should be the injustice right here at home. Examples:

* Islamophobia-inspired violence against Muslims and “Muslim-like” minorities (ie Sikhs)
* Religious freedom in terms of building mosques and Islamic centers (notably, Joplin and Park 51)
* Racial profiling, especially of African Americans (who comprise half the Muslim American population)
* TSA and immigration and customs persecution of Muslims (particularly, the No-Fly list)
* Invasion of privacy and domestic surveillance of Muslims by the NYPD (even in Jersey!)

and we should also lend our organization towards these causes which affect more than just the Muslim American community:

* Government data collection on all citizens (NSA/PRISM)
* Economic injustice (Detroit going bankrupt)
* Feeding the poor (budget cuts to child food programs)
* Jobs, jobs, jobs

These are all areas in which sustained Muslim American organization and action can make a substantive impact and directly influence the quality of life and increase social justice not just for hundreds of thousands of Muslim Americans, but millions of Americans overall. That is how we should be spending our social capital and the justice we should be standing for.

This agenda is not focused on the Ummah, it is focused on our neighbors and fellow citizens. The Qur’an commands us to help the poor (107:1-3) and to do good by our neighbors both near and far (4:136). The Qur’an praises the People of the Book (3:113-115) who are our neighbors and fellow American citizens. By embracing a domestic agenda that uplifts our own communities, and benefits the broader community of citizens (Muslim and non-Muslim alike), we will automatically be standing up for justice – social justice, economic justice, and religious justice, in full compliance with verse 4:135. ...

Faheem Younus wrote A better alternative to boycotting the White House Iftar in which he noted:

...  It’s obvious: We, the American Muslims are struggling to identify the right posture: Boycott, and you sever a diplomatic tie; attend, and you are seen as endorsing a policy.

While I empathize with the demands laid out by Professor Saifi -I believe the Obama administration should abandon overseas drone attacks, halt nationwide racial and religious profiling, and release select Guantanamo Bay prisoners – I knew the boycott will fail to achieve anything beyond creating a social media ripple.

...  Boycotts are glitzy; introspection is dull. It makes us go out of our comfort zone and ask hard questions.

Yes, drone attacks are immoral and should be stopped. But where is the call for boycott of the Saudi funded madrassas that have fueled terrorist attacks that have claimed over tenfold Muslim lives as compared to the drones?

Yes, we should stand up for the Guantanamo Bay prisoners who are being force fed. But let’s also stand up for the well documented and sustained extrajudicial killings of prisoners at the hands of Muslim officers of the Pakistani army.

Yes, the pockets of racial and religious profiling by the U.S. authorities should be protested but who is going to wail against the institutionalized racial and religious oppression (and in some cases, killings) of the Shias in Pakistan, Ahmadis in Indonesia, Bahai’s in Iran and Copts in Egypt?

Demanding the same rights in the U.S. which we so blatantly trample in the Muslim countries takes away the strength of our moral arguments. It equates us with the very mindset we resent. It enables the White House to fill up the sought after Iftar dinner to its brink despite our calls for a boycott.  ...

Svend White wrote The pros and cons of White House iftars in the Obama era in which he notes:

...  I happen to consider both Omid and Shahed dear friends, but I find myself agreeing with Omid here.

At the same time, I don’t have illusions about Muslim Americans’ influence under the circumstances. Many on the other side of the debate would no doubt argue that boycotting would reduce our already very modest influence within the government, and perhaps embarrass and/or alienate the few friends we have left these days in Washington. And they’d be right, at least from the conventional standpoint of Beltway politicking and jockeying for influence.

...  Perhaps, as a result of participating Muslims are occasionally able to participate in policy debates behind the scenes and occasionally makes a policy a smidgen less cynical and counterproductive. Maybe things would indeed be much worse if no Muslims had a seat at the proverbial table (albeit one by the kitchen door). I doubt it, but one can make the argument.

In any case, we don’t have a wealth of options in this political landscape.

But playing by the Beltway’s rules doesn’t get you far when you’re utterly outgunned, and by multiple factions. In that situation, I believe your only chance to win the day is to change the rules of the game by challenging the dominant discourse by forcing the public to grapple with the complexities and moral ambiguities of government policies that are being swept under the rug by the powers that be. You have to scream bloody murder so the numbed body politic notices something is terribly wrong. Quixotic calls for boycotts, like ones for secession or reparations, get attention and spark debate, which is desperately needed.  ...

Fatemeh Fakhraie wrote #WhiteHouseIftar and the Tactics of Activism in which she notes:

...  Full disclosure: I attended the State Department iftar twice when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. And I attended despite my disagreements with the administration on Iraq, Afghanistan, sanctions on Iran, drone strikes, and my general dislike of politics and politicians. I went because I believe it’s difficult to change the conversation when you’re not sitting at the table.

There are two ways of effecting change and they are both necessary. One way is working from the inside, as attendees of these events attempt, and another way is from the outside, by principled boycotts. Civil rights leaders use both of these tactics to advance dialogue and access to power structures; the American Muslim community must use both these tactics together to accomplish the same.

This should give all those who are still struggling to reach a conclusion about whether or not to attend such events locally or nationally more than a little food for thought.



Sheila Musaji is the founding editor of The American Muslim (TAM), published since 1989.  Sheila received the Council on American-Islamic Relations 2007 Islamic Community Service Award for Journalism,  and the Loonwatch Anti-Loons of 2011: Profiles in Courage Award for her work in fighting Islamophobia.  Sheila was selected for inclusion in the 2012 edition of The Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims published since 2009 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan.    Biography  You can follow her on twitter @sheilamusaji ( https://twitter.com/SheilaMusaji )


To White House Iftar or To Not… , Josh Shahryrar http://sjoshs.tumblr.com/post/56376832929/to-white-house-iftar-or-to-not

Why Muslims Should Skip the #WhiteHouseIftar http://stopislamophobianow.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/why-muslims-should-skip-the-whitehouseiftar/

White House Iftar: To Boycott Or Not To Boycott?, Yasmine Hafiz http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yasmine-hafiz/the-whitehouseiftar-boyco_b_3652694.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003

Originally posted 7/24/2013