Last week, President Barack Obama welcomed American Muslim leaders to the White House for iftar dinner, the meal at sunset with which Muslims break fast during Ramadan. The event is held every year to honor the religious tradition of an estimated 2.6 million American Muslims. Similar to the annual White House Hanukkah and Christmas events, the gathering is intended to serve as “an opportunity to recall our Nation’s journey, reflect on our blessings, and to remember those who serve and sacrifice for our freedoms.”
However, Obama did not strike a unifying tone at this year’s dinner. Instead, he managed to further alienate the most disenfranchised religious community in the country.
The president’s initial remarks echoed those of previous years. He began by recognizing several American Muslim attendees, including a veteran, the founder of an education nonprofit and a recent college graduate, each of whom, Obama said, had “help[ed] the next generation share in the American Dream.” The president then turned to the turmoil in the Middle East, including the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. He reiterated the standard U.S. position, noting, “We’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”
The president is correct. He has been clear about our country’s position. But at a time when Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza has led to the deaths of more than 900 Palestinians, mostly civilians, many American Muslims find that blanket support for Israel’s interpretation of self-defense difficult to stomach. Tarik Takkesh, a Palestinian-American who attended the dinner, characterized the president’s remarks as a symbolic slap in the face. Elsewhere online, a number of observers described the event as a humiliation for the Muslim guests.
The president’s comments on the ongoing crisis in Gaza at a religious event meant to uplift American Muslims and honor their contributions to our country were out of place. Moreover, they sent a clear message that American Muslims can have a seat at the table only when they subjugate their own voices and dissent.
This is a real problem with real consequences, particularly given the challenges Muslims already face in the U.S. According to a new Pew poll released last week, American Muslims are the least liked religious group in the country. In a similar Gallup survey in 2010, 48 percent of Muslims in the U.S. reported experiencing racial or religious discrimination, on par with the discrimination experienced by Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans. Given these dismal statistics, it’s no surprise that Muslims are among the least politically engaged groups in the country and that they are the faith community least likely to be registered to vote. In fact, only 65 percent of Muslims are registered to vote, compared with 91 percent of Protestants and Jewish Americans.
A symbolic dinner will not change the lot of any religious minority group. But a positive experience, one in which Obama’s guests and Muslims watching from around the country felt respected, could have sent the message that the president, and by extension the country, welcomes and wants their voices and opinions in the public sphere. I know this because that is exactly how I felt after attending the White House iftar two years ago.
At that event, in a manner that unified everyone in the room, Obama acknowledged the rash of hate crimes against Muslim and Sikh Americans and emphasized that there is no place for such kinds of violence in the United States. He also highlighted the contributions of Muslim women both here and abroad, especially those who took “to the streets to claim their universal rights” during the Arab Spring.
I left the dinner with the same criticisms of U.S. policies I had going in. But I also left feeling empowered by the highest political office in the country to go home and work on those same issues.
I doubt most of this year’s attendees would say the same.
The president did a disservice to the very leaders the event was supposed to honor. Many attended the event despite calls and pressure from activists to boycott it over a number of issues, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency and FBI were spying on prominent Muslim American civil rights activists, academics and lawyers. Obama’s remarks only made the situation worse for the attendees and made it that much harder for them to return home to engage their local communities.
To be clear, the suffering of innocent people throughout the Middle East weighs heavily on the hearts of many American Muslims, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. To not acknowledge that would have been equally deafening. But in the spirit of Ramadan, the president could have used the occasion to simply express solidarity with the suffering of all innocent people, whatever their religion. Full stop.
Some critics would have called out such sentiments as hollow, considering the U.S. has provided Israel with $3.1 billion in military support in 2014 alone. But it would have been an important, if small, external validation for American Muslims that they have the right to be civically engaged and the responsibility to express genuine dissent toward our government’s policies.