Last year during the month of Ramadan, at the very moment that the Israel “Defense” Forces (IDF) were mercilessly pounding the Gaza Strip and elsewhere the group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) gained territory and carried out gruesome beheadings throughout Iraq and Syria, some of the most prominent Muslim citizens of America were gathering in the nation’s capital to attend the annual Iftar banquet at the White House. Iftar is the time in the evening hours during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims break from fasting. 2014’s banquet, however, was shaping up to be a source of controversy even before the July 14th dinner took place. The year 2014 was one of great suffering and turmoil for Muslims the world over, with the bloody civil war in Syria in its forth and most deadly year with no end in sight, the rise of crazed demented takfiri groups such as Daesh (ISIS) who emerged and seized power over huge swaths of Iraq, Israel’s 51-day massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, deadly U.S. drone-strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority by the government of Myanmar, and the continuing imprisonment and force-feeding of over a hundred prisoners-of-war at the U.S. prison-base GITMO located at (illegally occupied) Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On top of that there were recent revelations that the NSA, FBI, CIA and NYPD had placed several prominent Muslim Americans under unconstitutional surveillance simply because of their religious affiliation. Being as how the drone strikes, the continuing existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, the unconstitutional surveillance, and blanket support for Israel have all been hallmarks of the Obama Presidency, some members of America’s respective Muslim and Arab communities didn’t feel the timing was appropriate to be engaging in harmonious ceremonies with some of the very architects of these detrimental policies over a White House banquet.
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), “the largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights organization in the country“, upon listening to the concerns of its members, made the decision to call for a general boycott of the year’s White House Iftar dinner. It had not come to the decision lightly. In fact, for years the ADC had encouraged Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S. to cooperate and engage in dialogue with the U.S. government, only to have their concerns fall on deaf ears with the administration. For example, when Israel began its murderous assault on Gaza which eventuated in the death of more than 2,200 Palestinians, community members “immediately requested a meeting with the State Department” in order to express their concerns and point of view, only to be ignored. In the words of one ADC member, “They want our votes and our money, but apparently they don’t want to hear from us.” In the end the ADC’s bottom line was that
“Political engagement is important and having a seat at the table is crucial – but only when that seat is intended to amplify our voice as a community, not tokenize or subdue it.”
There was not unity across the board however, with the also-influential Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) opting to attend the banquet under the impression that attending would “allow us to engage with senior White House officials for a decent amount of time on substantive issues”.
That morning the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest brushed aside calls to boycott the dinner and instead took the opportunity to try out some new talking points. Declining to address the legitimacy of the concerns raised, Earnest took a swipe at god-knows-which-countries when he stated that “unlike some other countries, the United States of America doesn’t target individuals based on their race or ethnicity or religion” – a bold-faced lie that the entire world can see through.
The amount of cockiness with which Josh Earnest dismissed Arab and Muslim concerns was probably due to two different perceptions on the part of the White House: (1) that support for President Obama on the part of the minority Muslim community can be taken for granted and (2) that the Arab and Muslim communities hold little clout when it comes to the American political scene. Throughout the Presidency of Barack H. Obama, polls have shown American Muslims are one of the most consistently loyal constituencies the President has, second only to African Americans. A great deal of his level of support among them could possibly be due to their having emphasized with the President who, although a practicing Christian, has been time and again demonized as a Muslim by his enemies on the right, in a way which most often suggests that being a Muslim is a bad thing. They may also have looked upon him fondly as someone who, during a time in which great animosity was being whipped up against Muslims by the right-wing over the proposed Cordoba House during the 2010 mid-term election season, President Obama delivered a firm defense of their right to religious freedom and sounded a much-needed note of tolerance.
Their power when it comes to influencing American politics is significantly less than that of other religious minority communities, however. They are generally not as well off economically as are Hindus and Jews, and due to distorted and racist media depictions of them, they face much discrimination in employment and are the least liked religious group in the country (right next to atheists, who practice no religion). Perhaps it was these circumstances that civil rights groups like MPAC had in mind when they decided it would be best not to turn down an invitation to dinner from the nation’s ostensibly most respected office.
Tarik Takkesh, a Palestinian-American, was conflicted over whether or not he should attend the banquet. On the one hand, he’d been listening to the concerns of those calling for a boycott and knew that they were sound, but at the same time he felt the only way to bring the important issues affecting his community to light was to have a seat at the table from which he could voice those concerns. His conscience in the end told him it would be best to attend instead of passing up the opportunity. When he eventually arrived at the White House to attend the banquet, there was one face that immediately jumped out at him. It was Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, “sitting eerily alone and reviewing the Muslim attendees like a watch guard at a security checkpoint.” What was Ron Dermer – the same Ron Dermer who once said Arabs possess a “cultural tendency towards belligerency” and defended current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2007 after he bragged about lowering the Arab birthrate in the country by way of economic hardship – doing at the Iftar dinner? Why was the Israeli ambassador extended an invitation while the ambassadors of say Russia or China were not? In the words of Tarik Takkesh, “would the President ever dare invite a representative from Hamas to a White House Passover Seder dinner? Or was this kind of disgrace reserved only for the American Muslim community?”
The evening banquet began with President Barack Obama offering some thoughtful words about the many contributions American Muslims have made to the United States as well as a few platitudes about the U.S.’s supposed commitment to equal justice under the law. But halfway through the 9 minute speech came his remarks regarding the atrocities occurring in Southwest Asia (aka the ‘Middle East’):
“…And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas. At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live… So we’re going to continue doing everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire.”
Why on earth, one wonders, would the President feel the need to restate America’s immoral, no-strings-attached support for Israel at a time when it was carrying out some of the most vicious crimes committed by either side in the nearly 70 year-old conflict? Isn’t the billions of dollars in lethal military weaponry and consistent abuse of veto-power to defeat related UN Security Council resolutions enough without having to stick it to the Muslims at a banquet supposedly held in their honor?
What’s worse is that during the President’s speech, ambassador Dermer decided to take to his Twitter page and let his friends back home know that President Obama was reliable in towing the official line.
.@WhiteHouse for Iftar dinner. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself.
— Amb. Ron Dermer (@AmbDermer) July 15, 2014
I guess we know then why his presence was necessary!
After the speech the dinner commenced, and when that was over President Obama seemingly disappeared without conversing at all much with his guests. Tarik Takkesh felt that he and his entire community had been insulted, and if he could go back in time he says he would liked to have challenged President Obama’s remarks. At the time, he was so taken-aback that he could do nothing but stay silent. In the end, he says he will remember this occasion as the time when an American President “brazenly co-opted” what had traditionally been “an outreach effort to the American Muslim community during the holy month of Ramadan” and “turned it into a provocative endorsement of Israel amidst its most recent massacre in the Gaza Strip.”