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Osama Abu Arshid

Obama offends at White House iftar

Obama's iftar dinner alienated many [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 July, 2014

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Obama's pro-Israel statement stirs controversy amongst American Muslims after Ramadan event.

The sixth annual White House Ramadan iftar under US President Barack Obama should have been a positive occasion for Muslim-Americans and Muslims in general. But this year’s event – happening in the shadow of American support for Israel’s assault on Gaza and in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on prominent Muslim Americans – sparked fierce controversy.


The presence of Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US, only added fuel to the fire. This was not the first time an Israeli ambassador had been invited to the annual White House iftar, even though, as many pointed out, no Muslim leader has yet attended the White House Hannukah party. But Dermer also managed to hit a sore spot with a tweet during the meal.


“@WhiteHouse for iftar dinner,” Dermer wrote. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel's right to defend itself.”


It was that “strong statement” that was the real cause of offence among Arab- and Muslim-American activists. Obama’s expression of support for “Israel’s right to defend itself” at a time when hundreds of civilians had been killed in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, in the presence of Arab diplomats and members of the Muslim-American community and during the breaking of the fast of the holy month of Ramadan was taken as a direct insult.


Not that the US president would have noticed on the night. According to one Muslim guest of Palestinian origin, the invitees were too busy discussing the food and seating arrangements to react at the time.


     Invitations were only extended to Muslim figures known to meet the official definition of ‘well-behaved’

Tactical withdrawal


Guests, including the two Muslim members of the Democratic Party in Congress, André Carson and Keith Ellison, were further offended by the president’s early departure. Before the event Ellison had described the dinner as an important opportunity for Muslim-Americans to discuss relevant issues directly with Obama. The president’s early departure, however, pre-empted this possibility.


The iftar dinner had already sparked heated argument within the Arab and Muslim-American community before it even took place. Organisations including the secular American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) had asked guests to decline their invitations because of the Obama administration’s position on Arab and Muslim-American rights as well as its complicity in Israel’s attack on Gaza.


Moreover, the guest list was widely seen as closely vetted to omit anyone even remotely controversial in the US political context. According to the leaders of some US Islamic institutions not invited, no organisations critical of US foreign policy or that take a public stance on the Palestinian issue were on the guest list. Rather, invitations were only extended to Muslim figures known to meet the official definition of “well-behaved”.




Thus several prominent US Islamic institutions missed out on an invite, including The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the biggest Muslim civil rights organisation in the US; the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which represents Muslim-Americans from Pakistan; the Muslim American Society (MAS); and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).


Instead, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was represented by its president, Imam Mohamed Magid, who has shown support for Israel and its US lobby in the past. Also represented, and for the first time, was Al-Fatiha Foundation, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims. Indeed, many on the guest list were not well known within the Muslim community.


The tradition of the White House Ramadan iftar started in 1996 under Bill Clinton and was inaugurated by then-first lady Hillary Clinton. It continued throughout the George W Bush years, including after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Bush used the iftars in part to try and show that the “war on terrorism” was not a war on Muslims.


But it appears that Obama, whose election in 2008 was widely hailed by Muslims worldwide as a sign that troubled relations with Islamic countries might ease, has yet to turn these events into any significant outreach to the Muslim community in the US.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition

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