The Case for Boycotts and Engagement – Why I attended the White House Iftar

White House Iftaar
Photo courtesy of Wardah Khalid

This is Day 11 of Altmuslim’s #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.

By Wardah Khalid

Sellout. Complicit in murder. Perpetuator of human and civil rights abuses. Devourer of food “laced with white supremacy and colonialism.” These are just a few of the phrases Muslims use on social media to describe their brothers and sisters who attend the annual White House Iftar. Despite falling during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, the event has become a yearly point of contention and fitna in the Muslim American community with calls for boycotts and personal attacks on those who break fast with the President.

As an active member of the community, I was well aware of the controversy when I received my invitation this year. But I also knew that, thanks to lessons from personal experience and history, I could accept the invitation and do so with a clear conscience.

While the dispute surrounding the White House Iftar is a relatively recent phenomenon, the struggle to find a balance between boycotts and engagement with authority is not. America’s civil rights movement is a fitting example. The movement’s prominent leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is revered for soaring speeches and leading protest marches in Selma and bus boycotts in Montgomery in an effort to gain rights for African Americans.

What is less known, however, is that during this time, he was also conveying this message at meetings with President Kennedy and later, President Johnson, in the White House. In fact, Johnson saw Dr. King as an essential partner in getting the Voting Rights Act enacted, according to Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs.

Did this make Dr. King a sellout? Hardly. On the contrary, it demonstrated his political savvy. King understood that changing policy required engagement with government to institutionalize the demands that marches, speeches and boycotts called for. In fact, in addition to lobbying for legislation protecting his community’s right to vote and assistance for their poor, he advocated for a Cabinet-level appointment of an African American to ensure that their needs were not neglected going forward.

Dr. King’s message was bolstered by his supporters protesting in the streets and outside the White House. The strategy worked, and President Johnson finally acquiesced to their requests.

I witness this dynamic every day in my work as I advocate on Capitol Hill, in the White House and in public for better U.S. policy solutions to end conflicts and human rights abuses in the Middle East. Policy change cannot be accomplished solely through boycotts or engagement with officials. Rather, it is a result of a combination of factors, including grassroots advocacy, public political engagement, Congressional support, administrative attention and good timing.

The more factors on our side, the higher our chances of obtaining the programs and legislation we want to create the America we know is possible.

We saw this play out recently with the incredible March 2 Justice, where individuals marched to end racial profiling, demilitarize police forces and invest in communities. When they arrived in D.C., they were met by Congressional representatives, including civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King decades ago.

The End Racial Profiling Act of 2015 was quickly introduced in the House and the Senate, and a few weeks later, the Obama administration announced a ban on sales of certain military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. While there is still much work to be done on these issues, there is no doubt that the sustained public outcry, including by the marchers, contributed to these long overdue actions.

Some critics of the iftar believe that attendees overtly or tacitly indicate complete support of U.S. policies, including the President’s problematic remarks on Gaza at last year’s iftar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Complete agreement is not a pre-requisite to engagement, and no one, including the President, applauds every U.S. policy.

Dr. King himself began vocally opposing the Vietnam War shortly after obtaining the Voting Rights Act, indicating that he likely worked with Johnson, despite his disparate sentiments, to accomplish his goals. Doing so certainly did not negate his incredible achievements or make the Nobel Peace Prize winner complicit in the war.

Similarly, I chose to attend the White House iftar, not because I agree with every U.S. policy (anyone familiar with my work knows that is not the case), but because it was an opportunity to speak with policy makers and urge them to take real action on issues important to the Muslim American community.

I was motivated by my desire to change the overbearing and unwarranted focus on Muslim communities in government CVE programs, the U.S.’s overly military approaches to countering ISIS, the need for accountability of Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinian children and the lack of Muslim Americans regularly advising the Administration through community meetings and senior level positions.

Obviously, my mere attendance would not accomplish any of these objectives on its own. Just as the protestors outside the White House pressured President Johnson while Dr. King pressed inside, we need Muslim American grassroots constituents and activists to hold those inside accountable and demonstrate the political will for the Administration to do what is right.

It is not only perfectly okay, but extremely crucial for both sides to play a role and have their voices heard.

We must respect the fact that at the end of the day, while we may choose different paths, the goal is the same — to create better policy for Muslim Americans and our brothers and sisters in humanity in the U.S. and abroad. Cutting each other down is unproductive at a moment when solidarity is needed most. It is time for the Muslim American community to move beyond iftar fights and come together to work for real change we can all agree on.

Wardah Khalid is a Scoville Fellow in Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation Education Fund in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the Young American Muslim blog for the Houston Chronicle and has been heavily involved in civic outreach, youth and interfaith work through Muslim organizations such as CAIR, MPAC, AMP and ISNA. Follow her on Twitter @YAmericanMuslim.

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