#WhiteHouseIftar and the Tactics of Activism

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

 (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson via The White House Blog)

(Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson via The White House Blog)

As many marginalized groups know, it’s not a party until we’re all arguing among each other. If you caught the #WhiteHouseIftar hashtag on Twitter, you saw some intense back-and-forth among American Muslims. But I’d like to share the two best pieces that characterize the debate, rather than focus on infighting.

I enjoyed the respectful consideration from Omid Safi, who asked those invited to the White House and State Department iftars to boycott them for the following reasons:

We should, all of us, collectively, politely, and firmly, decline the State Department Ramadan and White House Iftars until the following three measures are taken:

1)   The United States immediately abandons the policy of extra-judicial drone attacks in all countries.
2)   The United States immediately releases the political prisoners who have been cleared for release at Guantanamo Bay
3)   The United States immediately abandons the policy of profiling and surveillance based on race, ethnicity, and religion.

The reason for a boycott is simple:   These policies are an  insult to the highest values we as Americans cherish, and they violate the civil liberties and human rights of Muslims in this country and around the world.     These boycotts are not simply an exercise in rejection, but an appeal to conscience of all of us to be better than we are right now.

On the other side of the aisle, Aziz Poonawalla shares his reasons for attending the State Department iftar:

Remember, Muslim Americans are Americans. Yes, we should be concerned and have a debate about drone strikes in Yemen and in Pakistan, but those are decisions that Obama made in the context of national security, which includes and benefits our community too. We cannot expect all of Obama’s governance to be made through the filter of our concerns. Obama is not just the President for Muslim Americans, but all Americans, and sometimes we are going to have to agree to disagree. That does not make us any less a part of America and it does not invalidate the very real efforts Obama has made to address our community and include us in the conversation about our life here.

Full disclosure: I attended the State Department iftar twice when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. And I attended despite my disagreements with the administration on Iraq, Afghanistan, sanctions on Iran, drone strikes, and my general dislike of politics and politicians. I went because I believe it’s difficult to change the conversation when you’re not sitting at the table.

There are two ways of effecting change and they are both necessary. One way is working from the inside, as attendees of these events attempt, and another way is from the outside, by principled boycotts. Civil rights leaders use both of these tactics to advance dialogue and access to power structures; the American Muslim community must use both these tactics together to accomplish the same.

  • Aaron Vlek

    I wrote a piece supporting the boycott. However, I might feel differently if I saw any indication that attendance did in fact bring important topics to the table in an environment where such debate might have some effect besides getting those bringing the question up un-invited to the next Iftar. Long sentence I know but I hear too much about people getting thrown to the curb for mentioning, suggesting, even asking embarrassing questions. As I said in my piece, such events do provide a great place to network for personal gain and access to power and professional opportunism. Nothing wrong with that normally. But here it sends a wrong message to everyone. The best way to exclude oneself from that access is to ask embarrassing questions of a monolithic and unreachable administration.