The White House Iftar: Platform for Dialogue or Tokenization of Muslim Leaders?

This Tuesday, the White House hosted its annual Iftar dinner for Muslim leaders, particularly young leaders, invited from all around the country. Attendees included Samantha Elauf, recent victor of the Supreme Court case against Abercrombie & Fitch; Munira Khalif, founder of the nonprofit Lighting The Way and one of a handful of high school students admitted to all eight Ivy league colleges; and Batoul Abuharb, Palestinian relief worker and founder of Dunia Health.

The President’s welcome address highlighted the success of these and other young Muslim Americans, praising them as leaders for their admirable and inspiring work. Mr. Obama also condemned the Chapel Hill murders, stating that “nobody should be targeted because of who they are, or what they look like, who they love, how they worship” and briefly discussed the anti-Muslim protests that occurred recently in Arizona, citing a protester’s change of heart when he finally decided to engage with the Muslim community “and saw it for what it is – peaceful and welcoming.”

While this year’s remarks may be a notable improvement over those of last summer’s iftar, during which the administration grossly defended Israel’s “right to defend itself” amidst the bloody massacre in Gaza, they are still problematic. Perhaps once a symbol of “interfaith and inclusivity that reaffirmed the place of Muslims in America’s diverse cultural fabric,” post 9/11, the White House Iftar has essentially become a glorified opportunity to endorse America’s “less-than-accurate” image of its relationship with Muslims. The problem with this event is that it is exploited to normalize U.S.–Muslim relations,  attempting to mask the administration’s responsibility for its numerous and significant contributions to the ongoing turmoil in nearly every Muslim majority country.

American drone strikes continue to kill civilians in Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq; prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are still facing abuse at the hands of American military personnel; and the U.S. government’s unconditional support of Israeli policies has barely wavered. Domestically, the National Security Agency (NSA) has maintained and expanded its spying regimen on Muslim American communities. In his address, Mr. Obama faulted the media for propagating “distorted impression[s]” of Muslims and contributing to growing Islamophobic sentiments. Yet, he failed to acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy is in large part fueling this sentiment in effort to gain support for the aforementioned policies from the American public.

Some have argued that the Iftar may present an opportunity for the attendees to engage with the President on important Muslim American issues. Tarik Takkesh, a guest at last year’s White House Iftar, expressed having this intention prior to attending the event in a reflection he wrote for the foreign policy blog Mondoweiss. However, he found that the event was in fact ‘not aimed at fostering real dialogue.’ Rather, he felt it promoted “a one-sided narrative” that failed to leave any room for productive engagement on Muslim American issues.

While the White Houses’ address did counter negative stereotypes about Muslims in America, these remarks neither justify nor outweigh the offense of tokenizing our young Muslim leaders for its political aims. As flattering as it may be to have our religious traditions celebrated by the highest office in the nation, we should not settle for symbolic gestures that do little to help advance justice and peace for our communities. Instead of welcoming remarks that merely affirm our constitutional rights, we should use opportunities such as the White House Iftar to unite and prop-up our voices to demand attention to, and accountability for, the pressing issues that continue to plague our communities at home and abroad.

Last year, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) issued a call to boycott the Iftar, citing the government’s complicity in the “slaughter of Palestinians and the spying of American Arabs and Muslims domestically” as the primary reasons. But American Muslims were divided on issue — some supported the call, others were against it, claiming that “policy differences” was an insufficient reason to protest. While the boycott did succeed in amassing collective political action within Muslim communities, dissenting opinions prevented this protest from gaining the support it needed to have an impact on the White House Iftar itself.

Regardless of how we choose to protest, perhaps the greatest barrier to gaining political support for our issues is our lack of unified support for goals that seek to attain real progress for our communities. It is our failure to collectively cease condoning a tradition — which has thus far only proven to advocate for tolerance of Muslims in America — that undermines the efforts of many activists who fight for our rights to be genuinely treated as equals. Until we can unite under the idea that we deserve more than tolerance and organize effectively towards this aim, I find it difficult to conceive of any major policy changes for the most serious issues that continue to afflict our communities both domestically and abroad.

Written by Nour Azzouz