Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison said that "if we're not at the table, were on the menu." This was his justification for his attendance at this year's White House Iftar, which took place in the shadow of the U.S. government's support for Israel's massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as new revelations surrounding the National Security Agency's illegal surveillance of Muslim- and Arab-American community leaders. While I completely agree with Congressman Ellison and have always advocated for this fact, what he and many other White House Ifar attendees have yet to recognize is that they were the menu that night.
As the media relations specialist of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, I wrote up the statement last week declaring our boycott of all 2014 government iftars and calling on community leaders to do the same. The statement made ADC the first American organization to formally boycott this year's events. ADC has historically engaged with the government on policy changes and will continue to do so. This time, however, we advocated for a boycott not because we believed that it would result in any type of significant policy change, but because we felt that it was inappropriate for us to be accepting iftar invitations from the government while our brothers and sisters were being killed in Gaza -- including family members of the American constituents we claim to represent.
We also felt that it was hypocritical of the government to host us for dinners, when the names of Muslim and Arab community leaders that the NSA spied on -- solely for their religious and racial backgrounds and in violation of their civil rights -- came to light only days prior.
In hindsight, after learning about how the White House Iftar took place, I feel that we were completely justified and very wise in our public call to action.
President Obama used a religious event to make a political statement -- one that was simultaneously an insult to the entire Muslim- and Arab-American community. On one of the only government events of the year that was dedicated to Muslim Americans, the president invited Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to the White House Iftar, as if Dermer or the occupation he represents have anything to do with the religion of Islam. Obama's invitation to Dermer was a move to forcefully normalize relations between the Muslim community and Israeli diplomacy, all the while reaffirming the propagandized misconception that the conflict is a religious one rather than a purely political one. While Dermer's country was indiscriminately killing Arab civilians in Palestine, Obama forced Muslim- and Arab-Americans to break bread with him.
Worse yet, Obama used the Iftar to offensively reaffirm his unwavering support for Israel's right to "self-defense" -- the word that Israel and the U.S. like to use to describe the ongoing attack of an unarmed civilian population. In the midst of Muslim- and Arab-American attendees, he did not mention Palestine's right to self-defense, the need to protect their basic human rights, or sympathy for the now over 600 Palestinian casualties, 80 percent of whom the United Nations estimates were civilians, women and children. The most humiliating moment of the night was that Obama made those comments in the comfort of the attendees' deafening silence.
I respect and reaffirm the desire of Muslim- and Arab-Americans to engage in a productive dialogue with the government, but I also recognize that an iftar is not the venue for such dialogues to take place. At the White House Iftar, attendees weren't spoken with; they were spoken at. Tarik Takkesh, a Palestinian-American activist who chose to attend the Iftar, told me that no one even had access to the president during the event except for the handful of people sitting at his table. In his blog on Mondoweiss, Tarik says, "It was clear that this Iftar was not an event aimed at fostering real dialogue. Instead, it was a one-sided narrative, and the president left the room quickly after the dinner."
I would sincerely like to ask any of the attendees if they really got the dialogue for which they justified their attendance.
Those who attended the White House Iftar were used as token Muslims and Arabs on our entire community's behalf. While I respect the decision of those who attended with the intention of actually trying to make a difference instead of those who only attended for a photo op, when they remained silent and seated during Obama's insulting remarks, they remained silent and seated on behalf of all of us.
As an American citizen, I believe in government engagement. I value its potential and recognize its importance. I look forward to my government being more inclusive of me, representing me, and recognizing me as one of its own instead of a potential token for a co-opted political opportunity.
I want to have a seat at the table -- one where we can actually have a meaningful discussion about the real issues at hand. Not one where dinner is served.