Muslim Americans Are Perplexed by News of a White House Ramadan Dinner

Muslim-American leaders are suspicious of an administration that they say is hostile to their communities at home and abroad.
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Ibrahim Hooper.

Ibrahim Hooper.

When the Trump administration announced it would host a Ramadan dinner this week, many Muslim Americans could only balk. This is, after all, the same White House behind repeated attempts to ban the citizens of several Muslim-majority nations, known colloquially as his "Muslim ban."

What's more, it's not clear whether any Muslim-American community leaders will be at the White House to participate in the meal—and everything it comes to represent for Muslim Americans.

None of the Muslim-American community leaders interviewed by Pacific Standard had been invited to attend the Ramadan dinner—known in Islam as Iftar, the breaking of a day's fast with a festive meal. They all did, however, express puzzlement that the administration would host such an affair amid several recent developments in the United States' domestic and foreign policy toward Muslims—developments that they warn are especially troubling.

"Let's say, I don't expect to get an invitation," Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells Pacific Standard on the phone from Washington, D.C. "Because we just have so little information about it and whether it's going to take place, I would hesitate to comment at all."

The Ramadan dinner was slated for Wednesday evening, according to a Politico report citing an unnamed White House official. Pacific Standard's email to the White House press team to confirm the report bounced back. A spokesperson with the Department of State directed Pacific Standard to the same non-functioning email searchable online.

This year's Ramadan dinner would signal a reversal for President Donald Trump who last year refrained from hosting Iftar for the first time in decades. But, Muslim-American community leaders warn, the re-instatement of Ramadan festivities does little to address the White House's controversial policies. "Just an Iftar alone says little or nothing," Hooper says.

At the start of Ramadan last month, Trump issued a statement lauding the contributions of Muslim Americans to the U.S. "Ramadan reminds us of the richness Muslims add to the religious tapestry of American life," the statement reads. "In the United States, we are all blessed to live under a Constitution that fosters religious liberty and respects religious practice."

The White House's Ramadan statement and reported dinner plans come at a time of increased scrutiny over the administration's policies affecting U.S. and international Muslims. The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling imminently on the constitutionality of the Trump administration's travel ban against several, mostly Muslim-majority nations, one that followed Trump's campaign trail promises to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. Separately, last week, Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton hired Fred Fleitz, who reportedly has a history of habitually denigrating Muslims, as his chief of staff.

Fleitz is "just another person appointed to the White House who holds and spreads Islamophobic views—that Muslims are trying to take over America," Hooper says. "He's now in a position of power in the White House."

Trump's policy has not only hurt international Muslims attempting to enter the U.S., Muslim-American community leaders say. Palestinians have suffered the killings of scores of unarmed demonstrators this Ramadan, amid protests over Washington's decision to suddenly break with generations of U.S. administrations and move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing the city as Israel's capital despite its designation by the United Nations as an international city, belonging to people of all faiths.

Other community leaders across the nation agree with Hooper that the Trump administration's Ramadan observances are absurd considering the facts on the ground.

"Trump has some real nerve to host an Iftar at the White House, when his policies have been devastating to Muslims and Arabs in this country and across the world, especially in Palestine," says Hatem Abudayyeh, of the Chicago-headquartered U.S. Palestinian Community Network. "Any American Muslim who attends that Iftar should be excommunicated from our mosques and from all other institutions of ours."

In Los Angeles, Rashad al-Dabbagh, the founding director of the Arab American Civic Council, a community advocacy group, suggests that, if Trump indeed hosts an Iftar this week, it won't be for American Muslims or those affected by U.S. policies abroad; it will be for Trump's international partners. "I would assume that invitations will only go to diplomats representing Muslim-majority countries with close ties to the Trump administration, otherwise any Muslim Americans who plans on attending the Iftar would face backlash by his or her own Muslim community," Dabbagh says.

Guests at the 2015 Ramadan dinner listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Guests at the 2015 Ramadan dinner listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Trump and family have several high-profile political and business partners in the Muslim world. Following his election win in 2016, Trump declared that he was handing over control of the Trump Organization to his children, all of whom have taken an active role in his administration and campaigns for office. The Trump Organization has a large footprint in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab Gulf. And despite foreign and domestic policy that rights advocates say is hostile to Muslims, Trump has enjoyed the political support of administrations in Muslim-majority nations with checkered human rights records. Those partnerships may prove evermore indispensable to the Trump White House as Washington's traditional allies, most recently French President Emmanuel Macron, find themselves alienated by the more controversial of the president's foreign policy decisions, for example his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his more recent decision to impose tariffs on Mexican, Canadian, and European aluminum and steel.

Whatever the Trump administration's motives for reportedly choosing to host a Ramadan dinner this year, the decision would appear to run counter to its actual governance. The response from community leaders like Dabbagh to this development has been one of sheer bewilderment.

"It is outrageous to think that the Trump administration is going to host an Iftar after his call for a complete ban of Muslims entering the country and his ongoing hate speech against Muslims, immigrants, and refugees," Dabbagh says.

But in an administration characterized by so many rapid-fire changes of course, Dabbagh and company say they can't be sure that the Ramadan dinner will take place at all until a course is or isn't served in Washington Wednesday evening, after sundown.

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