What you did wrong at the White House Iftar

Were you so hungry that you spent time, money, and energy to make the trip to Washington, D.C., and navigate your way through streets and sidewalks caked with the bloody footsteps of soulless lobbyists and politicians just to break bread with a man whose signature authorized the thousands of death transactions we have seen throughout his presidency? Were you so excited upon receiving your invitation that you managed to forget that just hours ago, you were condemning everything about the White House? Were you so ambitious that you thought your attendance was going to change our government’s perception of the Middle East and reverse years of war that have taken the lives of millions of Muslims?

I am never really sure which is the U.S. State Department’s bigger gimmick: the Iftar itself or the guest list, upon which are the names of leaders, diplomats, and alleged representatives who are already so disconnected from the country’s Muslim community that they and their legacies are virtually unrecognizable. The White House has even begun inviting local leaders and community organizers, recognizing their individual struggles and reminding those in attendance that Muslims are a friendly bunch with great potential. The whole event is patronizing, but just like we loathe celebrities until the moment they’re autographing our t-shirts, the attendees eat it up.

There is a certain amount of dignity you must leave at the front door before allowing yourself to be convinced that you matter, that the President is listening to your needs, that American soldiers are taught that Muslims are dogs only to stimulate their wild cartoonish imaginations, not to make it easier to shoot at them and their families.

I fail to see the purpose of your attendance. I have tried to understand; I have read too many explanations to count. Most of them say it’s an opportunity to address the Muslim community’s concerns in a face-to-face setting, as though this is the first time the President has heard someone complain about illegal surveillance of mosques and Muslim youth groups. Some see it as an opportunity to break barriers and to show that Muslims are indeed excited to work hand-in-hand with the government, but such initiatives validate and give weight to those very same ignorant stereotypes that suggest we are a worthless segment of the American population. One of the most recent attendees even asks us to look at “the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands and the later conversion of the Mongols” to make her point about the importance of dialogue, as though the government as an institution was on the verge of converting to Islam and all it needed was that final bit of da’wah that only you could have provided on that special Ramadan night. I have tried to understand, but I just can’t.

To the White House Iftar attendees, did you expect to teach the President about Islam? Did you hope to show him our ways, maybe with a small demonstration of how we pray or a quick recitation of the Qur’an? Did you expect to enlighten him with knowledge of Islam he didn’t already know? Let me tell you. Islam is no foreign concept to the White House. A government does not wage war on a people without learning all there is to know about them. Qur’anic recitations are nothing new; the government’s wiretaps pick them up regularly. Every drone operator knows how Muslims pray; they see their targets make sujud before deploying a missile that kills a family of “six unknowns, unconfirmed if combatant or noncombatant, do you copy? One appears to be a child. Over.” The person you’re trying so desperately to impress already knows what your complaints are — everything has been said before — and he doesn’t care.

Perhaps you hoped to catch him off guard. Were you going to surprise him with a pop quiz on the number of Muslim countries he flies drones over (answer: five)? Or were you going to nod your head vigorously when he apologized for authorizing the use of inhumane techniques to extract information out of Muslims held without trial in Guantanamo Bay (which is something we all know he’ll never do)? Whatever your plan was, it didn’t happen. You sat and you ate and you literally rubbed shoulders with a man whose administration is responsible for killing more Muslims than the Spanish did during the Inquisition.

Maybe if you were a little less selfish and thought instead with a broader perspective, you would have stopped yourself from squandering one of the greatest opportunities any one of us could have. At no point will I ever discount your experiences, your ambitions, or the many obstacles you have had to overcome to be who you are today. But in this particular instance, an empty seat would have had a far greater impact than your tokenized presence.

Perhaps, however, this is all too reactionary for you. Perhaps you prefer something proactive. So think about the message you could have sent if the whole table was empty. All it would have taken was a few emails, a little bit of planning, maybe even a day or two of convincing. It could have been your way of speaking up, albeit without any real sound. Guests would see an empty table. It would be a point of discussion. It sends the signal that something is wrong. It might even inspire others to leave the dinner or maybe even to speak up. It could have been a form of charity, and the blessings would have been magnified during Ramadan.

If that last point isn’t familiar, I’ll quickly turn your attention to those masjid fundraisers we sit through before and during our taraweeh prayers. When we donate, we are urged to do so quietly, anonymously. It helps keep our intentions clean. We donate strictly for the cause, strictly for the sake of Allah, not because we seek praise and applause from those around us for parting ways with our money. But we are also taught that there are certain circumstances when it is encouraged to be public about our donations, particularly when the fundraising is slow and the crowd needs a spark. The intentions remain clean; the purpose becomes one of inspiration.

In the same vein that others might follow your lead and donate as well, your bold protest could have been a catalyst for great change, or at least a long overdue conversation about the War on Terror and what it means for Muslims globally and specifically Muslims in America. The most conservative estimates put the death toll at 1.3 million. This is the number of Muslims killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since late-2001. This is also the number of Muslims who are not around to learn about the White House Iftar and all of the wonderful strides you are making on their behalf.

The White House is a symbol of oppression for millions of families around the world and for millions of Muslims (and others) in the United States. You eating in it hasn’t changed that. You making small talk with the President hasn’t caused his administration to second-guess the legality of its drone warfare programs or its extrajudicial assassinations of Muslims with American citizenship. You being mentioned in a speech hasn’t stopped military aid to Israel. You played their game, and when you play someone else’s game, you lose.

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There are 18 comments

  1. Hoda K

    “Qur’anic recitations are nothing new; the government’s wiretaps pick them up regularly.” oof. SO GOOD. This was in the back of my mind the whole time as I was flipping through my instagram feed riddled with Obama’s face and exclamation marks. Such a well-written piece, Sami!

  2. Ali Sarmash

    Impeccable logic, Disassociate yourself with anything that has the blood of the American regime on it. Don’t take up a hollow gesture of goodwill in times of trouble. Burn down all bridges. If I disagree with foreign policy, should I leave America? That’s where this goes. (Sarcasm)
    And, on a side note, the reference to the Mongols was an attempt at what is called an analogy, ergo, do not take it literally. What she was saying was that even in the face of the horrifying Mongol horde, their hearts were turned to God because they, like all of us, including those at this dinner, were human.

    1. Sami Kishawi

      You’re trying to make the point that this is the beginning of a slippery slope, but it isn’t. This is just one opportunity to make a send a message. Want to visit the White House, to network with politicians, to exchange ideas with White House staffers, to rub shoulders with world leaders? By all means, do it — just not through an Iftar that is so obviously a political strategy.

  3. Zahra

    Excellent piece. No doubt the white house staff laughs at us Muslims. howlowhacs we stooped. No dignity or self respect. Good job Sami. Love your style.

  4. Mohammed Ali Rizvi

    Great piece – the one thing I would add would’ve been this.

    If people insisted so much to attend the iftar, they should’ve collectively used it as a means of protesting and speaking up at the event itself. Like Code Pink, who show up at hearings and speeches and heckle war criminals like Obama, Henry Kissinger, etc.

    We are way too shy of civil disobedience. Just my thoughts, let me know what you think.

  5. Adrisdean

    Same Kishawi,
    we live in a Democracy, thank God.
    I don’t know your ethnic background, but I’m of Indian origin, born and raised in Africa (3rd generation)
    And I’m grateful to be living in the USA, a proud Muslim, and proud to be an American.
    I am proud of our President, Barrack H Obama. In my life time I’ve only known 3 other leaders that
    could rub shoulders with him.
    perhaps you are a Bush lover, and perhaps you would prefer for another Bush in the White House
    Finally,
    Life Is Full Of Questions.
    Idiots Are Full Of Answers!!!!!!

    1. Redwhiteandblue

      Proud Muslim, proud to be under non Shariah law and proud to support an administration that has killed more Muslims than the Bush administration they are condoning.

  6. ayan affi

    Well written! I agree with you.

    More voices need to be heard, we must voice out our own thoughts and practise our faith and make it well known through our actions and make great use of our time as well inshallah khair.

    Keep on writing!

    Allah knows best,

    Ayan

  7. S Hassan

    This is a terrible editorial and highlights many of the things that are wrong with a good majority of Muslims living in America. I am a Muslim and used to attend a Mosque where the Imam hated on this Government’s policies, practices and pretty much anything else you can think of (like Sami has written above). He also discouraged the congregation from voting or participating in US politics, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen here. Essentially, all he and you are doing are complaining without offering any kind of solution to the problem. You have these sheep who agree with you and praise your writing. Why not take all this time and energy and start uniting Muslims and then creating a long term plan to have a real voice in politics? Money drives politicians and really nothing else. This isn’t going to change anytime soon so get with the program. We literally go about everything the wrong way. We don’t publicly condemn when we need to, we do outdoor protests when no one gives a crap about them anymore, we put up religious scholars with thick accents on TV to represent us, etc.

    I encourage you to research and write about how we can start to make a difference for a generation or 2 from now with proper leadership, vision and planning. Or at least be fair and also discuss how almost every Muslim nation is far more corrupt and kills more Muslims because of intolerance and ignorance than this one.

  8. Best article In a VERY long time

    I would like to applaud you for your integrity Mr. Sami, this has been by far the best thing ive read in a very long time. It seems to me that our fellow brothers and sisters are living in some kind of alternate reality. — It takes a great deal of naïveté for someone to actually believe that this was some form of bridge-building activity, and the fools just ate it up! I bet the staff behind this two-faced PR stunt (for lack of better word) are laughing their socks off at this very moment.

    The Ummah is dying at the hands of these people…. and you chose to sit there, eat their food and listen to something that means ZERO to them? You absolute FOOLS! You think your little get-together will change anything? – Think again. Day by day more Muslims are subjected to systematic genocide, and you choose to dine with the very people who are its biggest supporters. 😐 Morons.

  9. whitemvibes

    I don’t agree fully, but I like this and it made me laugh – in a good way. The Muslims who ‘broke bread’ with Obama would have been damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

  10. Ayesha

    To those who have criticized Sami….how would you feel if BO had given orders that day to bomb xyzcity, unbeknown to those youngsters at the iftar while having a lovely chat and fancy dinner. And you wake up the next morning with another 100 muslims dead. Its going to be a little hard to digest wouldn’t it…..

  11. ArkAn

    Masha’ALLAH Akhy.
    I would like to add that the solution is for we as Muslims to work to establish the Khilafah State. First it is a fard as it is only the instrument of state that can implement the Sharia of Allah (SWT) and effectively call the world to Islam, but also, the establishment of this state will protect our honour and that of the rest of humanity, from this sort of humiliation.

  12. Imaan Ali

    Pretty well written and simple o understand. Had I written this article it would have been more harsh especially how the US goverment has willingly and fully knowing killed hundred of thousands of innocent Muslims across the globe. BUSH or OBAMA are all the same.

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