Why Muslims Should Skip the #WhiteHouseIftar
Let’s be real here – this is the 79,000th article you’ve read in the last 2 days regarding the Annual White House Iftar. You already know that there are 2 camps:
1) The ones who say “Attend.”
2) The ones who say “Don’t attend.”
Needless to say, this debate is indeed polarizing and has led to some unfair labeling on both sides of the conversation. Even though in some cases the debate has gotten heated, it is absolutely necessary and a sign of our growth as a community to have such a conversation – as it has long-reaching implications as to how we view engagement, justice and gaining access moving forward.
Before proceeding, let this be said – This discussion shouldn’t be used to diminish the work of those who have attended in the past, are attending (but shouldn’t) today, and will attend in the future. I have friends, peers, and individuals whose work I admire among this group. This group includes some of the best, brightest and well-known activists from the Muslim community – which is EXACTLY why sitting out the iftar has the potential to make a large impact. The fact that this is even being discussed is making headlines in major news outlets.
So the question is why – why is there such a heated debate around attendance at the White House iftar this year? This event has been going on for over a decade now – and the level of pushback given now has reached a crescendo. My personal feelings have evolved on this issue as well – as I’m sure is the case with many who have taken part in this discussion.
If we go back throughout the history of this event, one could definitely justify attending the event as a representative of a growing, yet misunderstood minority in this country. Even during the Bush years, we lived in a time where transparency and access to information was not readily available. Muslim organizations and leaders were in the early stages of forming their identity in a post 9/11 reality. As it became clear of the civil liberties abuses and faulty wars that took place under the Bush administration – many in the community distanced themselves and waited for a new hope. And change.
It was definitely understandable for those who attended during the early Obama years. He, after all was going to correct the sins of the past. He was going to channel his Constitutional Law background into restoring civil liberties. He was going to prosecute those who lied to get us into war, and have a more balanced viewpoint on the Palestine/Israel conflict. Wait, that never happened.
Let’s forget about the past – “We’re not looking backward” – as Obama famously said. Let’s just look at what’s taken place under his watch. Rather than rectifying the egregious violations of the past – they have expanded greatly. Let’s just take a look at a few of these issues:
*The open and defiant use of extrajudicial killing – against American citizens, such as Abdur Rahman al Awlaki, who was a non-combattant.
*The expansion in the usage of drones – which has resulted in hundreds of innocent civilians being killed across the world. The majority of those killed in these “signature strikes” are civilians, and the list of countries in which these strikes are taking place is rapidly expanding throughout the Middle East/North Africa.
*GITMO – Yes, it’s existence pre-dates Obama – yet he was the one who vowed to close it as a Congressman, as a Presidential candidate, as a newly inaugurated President, as a re-elected President – yet it still remains open. Now, more of his presidency remains in the rear-view mirror than in front of him – yet this remains a broken promise. Our system of justice has denied these detainees the right to a trial – and today they continue to sit in a judicial “no man’s land.”
*The ongoing abuses of rights that have been sanctioned by the administration are countless. Here’s an example from the last 24 hours where a Yemeni journalist exposed a U.S. strike that killed 3 dozen women and children was beaten and jailed while the administration nodded in acceptance. The journalist was just released from this unjust imprisonment – leaving Obama “concerned and disappointed.”
This list barely scratches the surface of the ongoing issues to which the administration has not been held accountable. It can be argued that between last Ramadan and this Ramadan, the most light has been shed on these abuses than any year before (at least under Obama.) Now that this information has become public knowledge – do we still show up, smile for photo-ops, have our meals then go home?
The fallacy of “engagement”
Many in the pro-iftar crowd are labeling the critics as “anti-engagement.” Nothing could be further from the truth. All of the visible anti-iftar critics I have heard thus far (in addition to many iftar-attendees) are highly engaged with elected officials on a local, state and national level – mobilizing not only their organizations – but entire communities to engage on the issues. This includes bringing hundreds of participants to state capitols, face-to-face meetings with legislators, mayors and governors.
At this point however, it is questionable if attendance the White House iftar constitutes engagement. Events like these do not provide a platform for critiquing nor bringing into question the abuses by the administration. Looking at the responses from many attendees – it also appears to make one more prone to jump to the defense of the administration. Sadly, the likelihood of fostering critique greatly reduces when access is greatly increased.
Sound Advice From Dr. West
One of the week’s most inspiring moments came in the form of Dr. Cornel West’s interview on “Democracy Now.” There were many quotable moments from the interview such as “Obama is a global George Zimmerman.” What I found to be the most interesting however – was when Dr. West turned the discussion to the topic of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As those who are in the pursuit of justice – we tell ourselves that we follow the example of MLK, Malcolm X, and Gandhi. Our Facebook/Twitter avatars change with each passing MLK Day or Malcolm X birthday – which is supposed to signify our modern-day solidarity with their pursuit for equality and justice. We tweet out inspirational quotes from them – with the hope to connect our struggle to their struggle. But we must ask the question: Are we doing justice to the true legacy of these civil rights leaders? Or is this being done in the image of a more “warm and fuzzy,” diluted legacy?
As Dr. West noted: “I would say we must never tame Martin Luther King Jr. or Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker or Stokely Carmichael. They were unbossed. They were unbought.”
West and Amy Goodman also discussed the 50th Anniversary gathering of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality… Do you think anyone at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?”
The real legacy of Dr. King and the rest – was the willingness to stand up and speak the truth, even when the truth was controversial. This controversy made him a target by those who were in power – J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO, and other factions within his own government.
Every day, we become more and more privy to the information regarding how the administration is abusing their power. We are privileged to live in such times where we have the ability to take a stand based on ethics and principle. As many have said before me, the Muslim community stands on the forefront of standing up for civil rights and justice. With this responsibility in mind, it is hard to imagine attending such an event – and thereby giving sanction to the status quo.
It’s getting late though – the iftar is now just a few hours away. To those who are scheduled to attend – this represents some food for thought. Sitting this one out will send a real message to those in power that our community is “unbossed and unbought.”