On Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s White House will host its first iftar, the sundown meal that breaks fasts during the holy month of Ramadan. For some American Muslims, it’s also time to break out the horror-movie memes.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “30 to 40” people had been invited to the iftar, though Trump administration officials haven’t yet released a guest list or divulged many details about the event.
On Wednesday, a White House spokesperson said Trump will host the iftar dinner in the State Dining Room at 8 p.m. ET “for the Washington diplomatic community.”
In years past, White House iftars have invited not only diplomats but dozens of American Muslims from civil society, including corporate executives, scholars, activists and athletes.
But many American Muslims say they are reluctant to break bread with Trump, citing the President’s rhetoric and actions toward Muslims and other religious and racial minorities.
“We do not need an iftar dinner,” said Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. “Rather, we need to get the respect we highly deserve. Do not feed us and stab us.”
Hendi attended a White House iftar in 2009, when President Barack Obama was in office. He said he was not invited this year. Like many prominent Muslims who have attended previous White House iftars, Hendi said he would not attend if invited this year.
Many American Muslims said they suspect Trump’s iftar is aimed at placating the country’s allies overseas, rather than making genuine connections with their community, with whom the president has had a troubled relationship.
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“I was not invited to the White House iftar, but I would not attend if I were,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
“Attending this event, especially during the holy month, a time of introspection and spiritual growth, would be inappropriate in my view as it would appear to normalize this administration’s behavior.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations plans to hold “NOT Trump’s Iftar” event outside the White House as the main event is taking place inside.
A White House spokesperson declined to respond to a request for comment about the criticism.
Noting that Trump was also criticized for not hosting an iftar at the White House last year, CNN’s Kate Bolduan asked Ziad Ahmed, a student activist, if Wednesday’s event could be seen as a positive step.
“Has he apologized for saying ‘Islam hate us?’” Ahmed answered. “Has he changed his policies? Has he retracted the (travel) ban? He hasn’t changed his rhetoric on anything.”
Obama took heat, too
Hillary Clinton is generally credited with starting the modern-day tradition of yearly White House iftars in 1996. Since then, controversy over the dinners has ebbed and flowed with world events.
Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, President George W. Bush tried to quell religious tension by praising Islam.
“All the world continues to benefit from this faith and its achievements,” Bush said that November. “Ramadan and the upcoming holiday season are a good time for people of different faiths to learn more about each other. And the more we learn, the more we find that many commitments are broadly shared.”
Even Obama, who was seen as an ally by many American Muslims, sparked fierce debates about the morality of participating in a White House iftar.
Some Muslims were upset by his drone program that targeted suspected terrorists, others that he failed to keep his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In 2014, Obama was criticized for inviting Israel’s ambassador and defending Israel’s use of force to protect its people from Hamas rockets.
“There was a healthy amount of debate every year over this when Obama was president,” said Dilshad Ali, a managing editor at Patheos.com, a religion website. “And he was a pretty decent president.”
Trump, Ali said, is another matter.
“I don’t know anyone who would go to this iftar. It’s quite clear that Muslims are not a community that Trump is looking out for.”
Muslims wary of being ‘tokenized’
During his presidential campaign, Trump angered many American Muslims by making incendiary statements such as “I think Islam hates us” and promising to temporarily ban Muslim immigration as a counterterrorism measure.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center Survey, 74% of American Muslims say Trump is unfriendly to their community and two-thirds say he makes them feel worried. Just 8% of American Muslims voted for Trump.
Since Trump’s election, American Muslims have been further angered by a series of executive orders severely curtailing refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, moves many see as an enactment of his promised “Muslim ban.”
Trump’s retweet of anti-Muslim videos by a far-right British party continued to fan the flames. He has also stocked his administration with men, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who have ties to groups that promote Islamophobia.
Omar Noureldin, vice president and spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that, in contrast to past years, no one from his council was invited to Wednesday’s iftar. If they were, they would decline the invitation, he said.
“Our model of engagement with the government is that we have to believe we can move the needle in some respect, and given the policy and rhetoric from this White House, we don’t believe that’s possible, so we wouldn’t put ourselves in the position to be ‘tokenized.’ “
Who’s coming for dinner?
For many American Muslims, deciding whether or not to attend Trump’s iftar is a relatively easy question. The harder question to answer is: who is going?
Many people assume that, as in past years, the guest list will be stocked with Cabinet officials and foreign diplomats, particularly from Muslim-majority countries. But no one really knows for sure. Even prominent Trump supporters say they didn’t get an invite.
“It’s for Muslim ambassadors and some Cabinet members,” said Sajid Tarar, who led the group “American Muslims for Trump” and spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Qamar-ul Huda, a former State Department adviser on religion, said diplomats and Cabinet members were also regulars at other administrations’ iftar dinners, though American Muslims from civil society have often been invited as well.
“I think it’s just a symbolic showing of appreciation for certain allies, particularly in the Gulf,” Huda said of Trump’s iftar. “I don’t think it’s geared toward the American Muslim community at all.”
That kind of thinking feeds notions of Islam as a “foreign” religion, Huda said, “a religion from overseas. Not a religion that has been here for three hundred years.”
Still, Huda said he would have attended Trump’s iftar, if he had been invited.
“I think whoever is in government should have access to sound advice. Others close to me would say, ‘No way, you’d sacrifice your integrity.”
For Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, interfaith iftars are part of his daily bread. But even he said he would have trouble accepting an invitation from Trump’s White House.
Wednesday night is Lailutul Qadar, the night Patel, an Ismaili Muslim, commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s his favorite religious event of the year.
“So I would politely decline if I were invited to the Trump White House iftar,” Patel said. And if tomorrow night were not Lailutul Qadar?
“I would still politely decline.”
This story has been updated.