The other day in clinic when I asked a patient of mine what he did for work, he said, “Doc, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’m a retired deputy Sheriff from LA.” I inquired about his hesitation. He noted how the department had deteriorated in morale and discipline, adding that once he was so proud to be a part of the department that if the Sheriff called him for duty, he could not say “no.” It’s much like if the President of United States calls one to serve our country, he said. How can one say “no?”
It is his latter comment that has stuck with me. Time and again, I’m intrigued by the respect, trust and prestige the office of POTUS carries in the minds of Americans, despite the contemporary vitriol and polarizing environment surrounding the office. When a national tragedy occurs, the President consoles the American people. And, when the President addresses the nation, it brings much needed healing and comfort, as seen in the aftermath of recent mass shootings and terror incidents.
It is for this reason, I contend, that when the President invites one for Iftar (the fast-breaking meal in Ramadan), one responds gracefully and strives to attend. It is precisely the respect for this office and what it symbolizes – not necessarily the one who holds the office – that inspires citizens.
Therefore, if one wishes to boycott such an event in hopes of achieving a policy objective, I would direct that individual’s energies toward the ballot box. Imagine if 90 percent of American Muslims began casting votes; we would then be having a different conversation altogether.
On Monday, hours before the White House Iftar, a boycott petition was circulated and generated an unusual buzz, especially on social media, that was captured by the Huffington Post and Politico. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s position, in favor of the boycott, was also released before the Iftar. The reaction was hardly surprising, as it came on the eve of a barbaric and brutal assault on the innocent women and children of Gaza. The loss of civilian life clearly outweighed any chronic grievances the Muslim community held, ranging from surveillance to Guantanamo Bay, which despite being constantly brought up directly with the President at these Iftars in the past, had not received much consideration at all.
At the Iftar, POTUS’s remarks included an emphasis on the right of Israel to defend itself while stating, in passing, a request to also protect civilian life –- confirming the sentiments of boycott proponents. Furthermore, the news of 18 family members who were killed in an aerial bombing of Gaza that broke earlier pointed to the extreme gravity of the situation. We, as Americans, cannot even begin to imagine the pain and suffering endured by the Gaza victims and their loved ones.
And so, in the midst of such pain and injustice, it is completely understandable that an individual might not feel comfortable smiling for the cameras on the White House red carpet. So if one rather busied onself with humanitarian efforts, aid delivery and advocacy on the Gaza situation and decided to politely decline the invitation with an appropriate accompanying message, it would be completely reasonable and justified. Such a response would be graceful and have impact. The decision of each guest whether or not to attend is, of course, a personal choice. But regardless of the decision, the act should be done with purpose, dignity and grace.
The arguments that I have seen from both sides of the debate merit consideration, minus the rare instances of calling the Iftar participants sellouts (irrelevant in this case, since most attendees are from the diplomatic corps anyway; usually few American Muslims are invited). The event itself is symbolic in nature but does speak volumes about American Muslim contributions and the recognition of those contributions by the highest office of the land. And that is something that should not be dismantled but, instead, strengthened.
In drawing lessons from Islamic history, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was invited to meet an elite group from a powerful tribe in Medina (Banu Nadhir) that was initially an ally but had begun to turn against him. He accepted the invitation at the expense of risk to his life. What followed suit is a matter of controversy. Nevertheless, the lesson derived here is the emphasis on attempting at dialogue and setting things right on part of the prophet (pbuh).
Did Musa (Moses) walk into Pharaoh’s palace uninvited? Certainly not, he was invited and he went forth with an ultimatum and a challenge. In the White House Iftar story, there is neither a Moses nor a Pharaoh, but only a challenge. And that challenge is for us to deliver results for the sake of all those who are suffering from inequities . And once again, it all starts at the ballot box.
Rather than boycotting the Iftar to show disapproval of the White House’s response to the situation in Gaza, this opportunity should be optimized, to make the Muslim presence felt and our voices heard.
Many of you may have heard of Tarek Abu Khdeir, a teenager from Florida who was nearly beaten to death by earlier this month. Two IDF soldiers beat him to unconsciousness after which he was imprisoned without medical care. Tariq’s teenage cousin Muhammed was burned to death on July 2.
I believe one useful petition to circulate next year would be to urge the White House to invite Tarek and his family to participate in the Iftar, perhaps even reward him for his courage and determination.
Dr. Faisal Qazi is the co-Founder of MiNDS, a community development foundation local to Southern California and VP of the Whitestone Foundation – a national American Muslim community-building project. He serves as a member of City of Fullerton’s Community Development Commission.