Op-Ed: Dear President Trump: You’re Doing Iftar All Wrong

Written by Zaki Barzinji, Policy Advisor

June 7, 2018

By inviting diplomats instead of ordinary American Muslims to the White House Iftar, the White House is sending the wrong message.
By inviting diplomats instead of ordinary American Muslims to the White House Iftar, the White House is sending the wrong message.

Originally published in Politico on June 6, 2018.

Last year, President Trump skipped the annual White House iftar — the traditional meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast – reinforcing the perception that he doesn’t believe it’s his job to represent all Americans. So you might think that tonight, when the president will finally host an iftar feast, would be a step forward. But you’d be wrong.

In reality, Trump will open the White House’s doors to a handful of diplomats who don’t come close to representing America’s beautifully diverse Muslim communities. This, unfortunately, will only reinforce the administration’s deeply problematic policies that target Muslims domestically and ally with the biggest bullies in the so-called Muslim world. As the former White House liaison to Muslim Americans under President Obama, I wasn’t holding my breath for an invite. But when even a Trump cheerleader and bowtie enthusiast like Sajid Tarar can’t get an invite, you know exactly where the president’s priorities lie: with the authoritarian regimes that oppress Muslims and fuel terrorism.

Consistency is generally not an adjective one uses to describe the Trump White House, with its revolving door of fired staffers, investigations and knee-jerk policy decisions. But when it comes to Muslims, this administration has held the line remarkably. From keeping his campaign promise to ban Muslims in his first few days in office (while tearing apart families and American values in the process), to choosing the world's most repressive and theologically rigid regime – Saudi Arabia – for his overture to Muslims, to stuffing his first Ramadan message with the cheery holiday greeting of “you must fight ISIS,” President Trump’s priorities have been crystal clear. He and his coterie of advisers with a history of Islamophobic remarks (Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and before them Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn) have established a reliable pattern of ignoring Muslim Americans and their contributions to society while framing any mention or engagement with them solely through the prism of counterterrorism. 

Ironically, this narrow approach to Muslims here at home and across the world only reinforces the same narratives that extremist groups on all sides love to promote. By choosing Saudi Arabia as the site for his only major overture to Muslims (instead of, you know, his own backyard), and keeping Wednesday’s invite list strictly to foreign diplomats, President Trump is sending a message that he considers Islam and Muslims fundamentally foreign entities. Even in what is promoted as positive engagement, such actions only further cement the idea that the “Muslim world” is fundamentally different and alien from America. The alt-right and ISIS alike want everyone to know that Muslims have no place in America, cannot lead meaningful lives and will never contribute positively to the fabric of our society – and Trump is helping them.

President Obama’s overtures to Muslims weren’t always innocent of blunders or pandering, but the underlying intent was always to build bridges and amplify the diversity of voices. In his seminal Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama made sure to emphasize the contributions of American Muslims in every facet of society, dating back to before the country’s founding. Instead of chastising Muslims during their holiest month, he embodied the true Ramadan spirit of openness and generosity by pledging to keep America welcoming for all.

Most apparent of all, Ramadan celebrations in the White House took a markedly different approach. For most of Obama’s tenure, the White House filled its iftar dinners with about 100 guests and included a near-even mix of diplomats and remarkable Muslim American leaders. These events were diligently calibrated and planned by stellar public servants such as Rashad Hussain and Rumana Ahmed. In 2016, after I joined the White House, we decided to break with tradition and, in lieu of an iftar, threw a 350-person celebration of Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, with the spotlight almost entirely on Muslim Americans from all backgrounds. We sought greater inclusion by inviting leaders who had been critical of Obama, increasing the representation of African-Americans (who make up the plurality ofMuslim-Americans, but are woefully underrepresented in public discourse), and adding to the president’s remarks a shout-out to the LGBT Muslim community (whose voices we particularly sought to center in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting). To top it off, the president himself was introduced by Somali teenager Aisha Osman, who had written him a letter detailing her experiences as a hijab-wearing black woman living at the intersection of Islamophobia and anti-black racism.

Suffice to say, we’re unlikely to see anything approaching that level of nuance tonight. Instead, look for major campaign-style brags on how superbly Trump and his Saudi friends are fighting terrorists, minimal presence of bonafide national Muslim leaders, and zero mention of the skyrocketing hate-crimes against Muslim Americans (fueled in no small part by his own encouragement and tweets). Given this administration’s track record of stoking Islamophobia and tonight’s guest list, the iftar is likely to only further inflame relations with the president’s own constituents. Perhaps the White House would have been better off continuing its new tradition of ignoring us completely.

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