The U.S. government has been hosting iftar dinners to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for over a decade, with individual events held by the White House, the State Department, and other government agencies.
These events were originally hailed by the American Muslim community as excellent examples of interfaith and inclusivity that reaffirm the place of Muslims in America's diverse cultural fabric, and the White House will be holding one tonight. I attended the State Department iftar hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry last night.
However, the official dinners are now coming under fire from some Muslims, who see these attempts at inclusion as hypocritical, as the U.S. government continues to engage in policies reviled by the American Muslim community at large, namely the drone war, the force-feeding and imprisonment of people at Guantanamo Bay, and NSA domestic surveillance.
Omid Safi, a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is attempting to parlay this event into a political statement by calling for Muslim leaders to boycott the iftars in a blog post;
We should, all of us, collectively, politely, and firmly, decline the State Department Ramadan and White House Iftars until the following three measures are taken:
1) The United States immediately abandons the policy of extra-judicial drone attacks in all countries.
2) The United States immediately releases the political prisoners who have been cleared for release at Guantanamo Bay
3) The United States immediately abandons the policy of profiling and surveillance based on race, ethnicity, and religion.
Safid is missing the point entirely. Attending a government iftar is not tantamount to endorsing the government itself. One can support America without supporting the American government, and indeed a hallmark of being an American is having the freedom to agree or disagree with policies as one likes.
By calling for a boycott of the iftars, these Muslims simply polarize the country into two groups, Muslims vs. Americans, which erases much of the progress that other activists have made to show that Muslims are Americans. The otherizing of Muslims happened widely after 9/11, with many American Muslims experiencing discrimination at home, but conditions have vastly improved since then, largely thanks to activists who fought to reclaim their identity as Americans as well as Muslims.
Aziz Poonawalla of the City of Brass blog has a different take on the matter, criticizing the virulent attacks on Twitter which have sprung up using the hashtag #WhiteHouseIftar. He argues against burning bridges with the administration and says that these protests "delegitimizes the efforts by the community to gain influence and persuade the Administration of our perspectives," and goes on to explain:
The reason that Presidents Bush and Obama hold these events is to meet ordinary Muslims face to face, hear our stories, and understand how we are a part of the fabric of America.
Remember, Muslim Americans are Americans. Yes, we should be concerned and have a debate about drone strikes in Yemen and in Pakistan, but those are decisions that Obama made in the context of national security, which includes and benefits our community too.
We cannot expect all of Obama's governance to be made through the filter of our concerns. Obama is not just the President for Muslim Americans, but all Americans, and sometimes we are going to have to agree to disagree. That does not make us any less a part of America and it does not invalidate the very real efforts Obama has made to address our community and include us in the conversation about our life here.
How can change happen without engagement? Whether the motives of the Muslims attending the iftars are to support, to network, to criticize, or to simply break their fasts together, they are showing that they are open-minded enough to do so in a setting that they may not agree with.
Others decry the "iftar-shaming" of fellow Muslims:
The overall effect of these iftar critics is to exacerbate the perception of Muslims as foreign and separate from the American community, when in fact almost 3.5 million Muslims live in America. Religious and national identities are categories which should not be confused, and uniting as a religious group to protest issues of the nation at large serves to create a gulf between two aspects of identity that are meant to overlap.
Window-dressing though they may be, the iftars also play an important part in the political life of Muslims engaged in the American political system. Do these iftar critics also want Muslim political leaders like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to resign in protest against government policies? The iftar boycott is short-sighted and hinders Muslim attempts to enter the political system and enact change from within.
Shahed Amanullah, a Senior Advisor at the State Department, posted a Facebook status which affirmed the event as an opportunity for Muslims, writing, "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."
Maybe one day there really will be a Muslim in the White House-- but for that to happen, the Muslim American community must embrace both facets of its identity rather than dividing itself.