The White House has hosted an Iftar dinner annually since the Clinton administration. However, President Donald Trump — breaking with tradition — passed on hosting one in 2017, causing controversy. This year, however, the Iftar dinner was no less controversial.
No Muslim-American leaders or activists appear to have attended the dinner. (Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, declined to provide a final guest list), and it is not clear if any were asked. The dinner was instead attended by a number of Middle Eastern diplomats and senior officials, including representatives from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, as well as one American Muslim military chaplain. According to the Guardian, representatives of a number of prominent domestic Islamic advocacy organizations, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), were surprised not to be invited to the dinner.
“There has been no real engagement, no real effort to even invite members of our faith communities, to have conversations with the White House or administration,” Hoda Hawa, MPAC’s director of policy and advocacy, told the Guardian.
Trump’s Iftar dinner seems to be representative of a wider trend in his presidency: that of minimizing attention paid to the needs and goals of Muslim Americans, while stoking Islamophobia more generally to appeal to Trump’s white, conservative base. From the “Muslim ban” barring visitors from seemingly arbitrarily selected Muslim countries to his repeated, hostile, and often factually incorrect comments about Islam (like the debunked idea that American Muslims were “celebrating” 9/11), Trump has positioned himself in opposition to the American Muslim community.
His remarks about Islam at the event, however, were generally positive. He called Islam “one of the world’s great religions” and wished attendees a “Ramadan Mubarak” — Arabic for a “blessed holiday.”
However, a number of American Muslims saw in the start of Ramadan the opportunity to publicly oppose the Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric on Muslims.
The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) sponsored Not Trump’s Iftar, an interfaith rally outside the White House, in partnership with other Islamic advocacy organizations. Wardah Khalid, a Media Associate with Church World Service — a humanitarian organization that worked with CAIR on the event — spoke to Vox about the community’s general feelings about the Trump administration: “For any Muslim leader to even consider going to that White House is hard,” she said.
Attendance needn’t equal full endorsement of a White House’s policy decisions she said — she attended President Obama’s White House Iftar, despite having problems with his foreign policy, but she could not imagine attending Trump’s Iftar. A lot, she said, would have to change before she would even consider attending in 2019. “The way that President Trump has made it his complete mission to marginalize Muslim Americans, to say that ‘Islam hates us,’ to ban them from entering this country, all of these things would need to be reversed and we’d need a huge apology,” she said.
“But,” she concluded, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”