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What you did wrong at the White House Iftar

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OPINION by Sami Kishawi – Were you so hungry that you spent time, money, and energy to make the trip to Washington, D.C., and navigate your way through streets and sidewalks caked with the bloody footsteps of soulless lobbyists and politicians just to break bread with a man whose signature authorized the thousands of death transactions we have seen throughout his presidency? Were you so excited upon receiving your invitation that you managed to forget that just hours ago, you were condemning everything about the White House? Were you so ambitious that you thought your attendance was going to change our government’s perception of the Middle East and reverse years of war that have taken the lives of millions of Muslims?

I am never really sure which is the U.S. State Department’s bigger gimmick: the Iftar itself or the guest list, upon which are the names of leaders, diplomats, and alleged representatives who are already so disconnected from the country’s Muslim community that they and their legacies are virtually unrecognizable. The White House has even begun inviting local leaders and community organizers, recognizing their individual struggles and reminding those in attendance that Muslims are a friendly bunch with great potential. The whole event is patronizing, but just like we loathe celebrities until the moment they’re autographing our t-shirts, the attendees eat it up.

There is a certain amount of dignity you must leave at the front door before allowing yourself to be convinced that you matter, that the President is listening to your needs, that American soldiers are taught that Muslims are dogs only to stimulate their wild cartoonish imaginations, not to make it easier to shoot at them and their families.

I fail to see the purpose of your attendance. I have tried to understand; I have read too many explanations to count. Most of them say it’s an opportunity to address the Muslim community’s concerns in a face-to-face setting, as though this is the first time the President has heard someone complain about illegal surveillance of mosques and Muslim youth groups. Some see it as an opportunity to break barriers and to show that Muslims are indeed excited to work hand-in-hand with the government, but such initiatives validate and give weight to those very same ignorant stereotypes that suggest we are a worthless segment of the American population. One of the most recent attendees even asks us to look at “the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands and the later conversion of the Mongols” to make her point about the importance of dialogue, as though the government as an institution was on the verge of converting to Islam and all it needed was that final bit of da’wah that only you could have provided on that special Ramadan night. I have tried to understand, but I just can’t.

To the White House Iftar attendees, did you expect to teach the President about Islam? Did you hope to show him our ways, maybe with a small demonstration of how we pray or a quick recitation of the Qur’an? Did you expect to enlighten him with knowledge of Islam he didn’t already know? Let me tell you. Islam is no foreign concept to the White House. A government does not wage war on a people without learning all there is to know about them. Qur’anic recitations are nothing new; the government’s wiretaps pick them up regularly. Every drone operator knows how Muslims pray; they see their targets make sujud before deploying a missile that kills a family of “six unknowns, unconfirmed if combatant or noncombatant, do you copy? One appears to be a child. Over.” The person you’re trying so desperately to impress already knows what your complaints are — everything has been said before — and he doesn’t care.

Perhaps you hoped to catch him off guard. Were you going to surprise him with a pop quiz on the number of Muslim countries he flies drones over (answer: five)? Or were you going to nod your head vigorously when he apologized for authorizing the use of inhumane techniques to extract information out of Muslims held without trial in Guantanamo Bay (which is something we all know he’ll never do)? Whatever your plan was, it didn’t happen. You sat and you ate and you literally rubbed shoulders with a man whose administration is responsible for killing more Muslims than the Spanish did during the Inquisition.

Maybe if you were a little less selfish and thought instead with a broader perspective, you would have stopped yourself from squandering one of the greatest opportunities any one of us could have. At no point will I ever discount your experiences, your ambitions, or the many obstacles you have had to overcome to be who you are today. But in this particular instance, an empty seat would have had a far greater impact than your tokenized presence.

Perhaps, however, this is all too reactionary for you. Perhaps you prefer something proactive. So think about the message you could have sent if the whole table was empty. All it would have taken was a few emails, a little bit of planning, maybe even a day or two of convincing. It could have been your way of speaking up, albeit without any real sound. Guests would see an empty table. It would be a point of discussion. It sends the signal that something is wrong. It might even inspire others to leave the dinner or maybe even to speak up. It could have been a form of charity, and the blessings would have been magnified during Ramadan.

If that last point isn’t familiar, I’ll quickly turn your attention to those masjid fundraisers we sit through before and during our taraweeh prayers. When we donate, we are urged to do so quietly, anonymously. It helps keep our intentions clean. We donate strictly for the cause, strictly for the sake of Allah, not because we seek praise and applause from those around us for parting ways with our money. But we are also taught that there are certain circumstances when it is encouraged to be public about our donations, particularly when the fundraising is slow and the crowd needs a spark. The intentions remain clean; the purpose becomes one of inspiration.

In the same vein that others might follow your lead and donate as well, your bold protest could have been a catalyst for great change, or at least a long overdue conversation about the War on Terror and what it means for Muslims globally and specifically Muslims in America. The most conservative estimates put the death toll at 1.3 million. This is the number of Muslims killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since late-2001. This is also the number of Muslims who are not around to learn about the White House Iftar and all of the wonderful strides you are making on their behalf.

The White House is a symbol of oppression for millions of families around the world and for millions of Muslims (and others) in the United States. You eating in it hasn’t changed that. You making small talk with the President hasn’t caused his administration to second-guess the legality of its drone warfare programs or its extrajudicial assassinations of Muslims with American citizenship. You being mentioned in a speech hasn’t stopped military aid to Israel. You played their game, and when you play someone else’s game, you lose.

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