A White House Iftar
By Nayyer Ali MD

Last Friday, August 10, I had the pleasure of attending an iftar in the White House. I didn’t really do anything to merit this honor, but I have worked with the Muslim Public Affairs Council for over a decade, and it was by virtue of being the current board chairman that I attended on behalf of MPAC. So other than 10 hours in a plane there and back to eat chicken in the White House, what was the significance of this event?

The hundred or so guests entered the White House around 730 PM, and security was similar to boarding a flight, a check of ID and a metal scanner. The staff was quite polite and we went in through the East Wing. The wing was open for us to walk around in and look at the different rooms. On display was the Thomas Jefferson copy of the Qur’an, which Jefferson had purchased while studying law; it was the George Sale English translation. We heard the azan at sunset and broke our fast with dates and juice, prayed Maghrib and then were seated for dinner.

President Obama then entered and made a short speech about the importance of religious freedom and then went on to speak about the important role of women in the Arab Spring and of Muslim women in the US. He singled out several guests in the audience, in particular Huma Abedin, who has been a long time close personal aide of Secretary Hilary Clinton, and who has been recently attacked as a possible agent of infiltration by some of the extreme right like Michele Bachmann. He concluded with condemnation of violence against any religious group and remarked on the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin. We then had dinner, Obama came around and shook the hand of every guest, and photos were taken. He then departed and the event came to an end.

So what to make of this? Was it simply a social gathering? Was it a statement of Muslim political importance? Was it something else entirely? Very little the White House does is without political context.

Going back to the Bush years, it was actually President Bush that began the tradition of inviting American Muslims to a White House iftar in Ramadan. While the need to invite foreign ambassadors was a longstanding part of diplomacy, the decision to have an event where most of the guests were American Muslims was new to Bush.

Even last week several ambassadors from African countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia attended. For Bush, the iftars were part of a policy of trying to reframe his war in Iraq and War on Terror as something distinct from a war on Islam. The latter was the charge that many Muslims felt was the real truth, and Bush clearly had a goal of trying to deflect that. Which is also why Bush went out of his way to be solicitous of the American Muslim community. He went to a mosque shortly after 9/11 and never allowed the hard right in the Republican party to engage in attacks on Islam.

The election of Obama changed that dynamic. Here was now a President that the hard right felt no loyalty to, who many within that group believed at least on some level was a secret Muslim, and whose foreign policy agenda was not theirs. Obama has been actually rather sensitive about the secret Muslim charge. He has not visited a mosque in the US even once, and has not addressed a Muslim audience. On the other hand he has emptied Guantanamo Bay of most of its prisoners (not all, unfortunately), he has removed the army from Iraq, and he is winding down the war in Afghanistan. He handled the Arab Spring very well, allowing Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen to fall and helping the Libyans when they needed it. Obama’s approval rating among American Muslims is over 70%, the highest of any demographic other than African-Americans.

So in that context, and in a tight reelection where even a 2% change in voting preference can swing victory into defeat, Obama has walked a tightrope with the Muslim community. This iftar was part of that tightrope. He gave a benign speech and signaled his friendship to the community, but avoided a more politically damaging event like going to a mosque or attending an overtly Muslim fundraiser for him.

Despite that, American Muslims should take this as a real positive. While American Muslims do not have much political power, neither in terms of donating large amounts of money, nor in terms of votes, the first step forward is to have your presence recognized and accepted as legitimate. Without that, you can’t even get started. These iftars add to the sense that American Muslims are a real part of America, and have just as much right to participate in the government and in policy-m aking as anyone else.

 

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