This past weekend a group of Muslim leaders around the country convened at the White House for the annual White House Iftar Dinner (this year it was an Eid dinner that occurred three weeks after Eid but who's counting). The dinner was designed as a sign of good will and acceptance towards the Muslim American population and has been an annual event since the Clinton Administration. In a country where most of the screen time allowed for Muslims, whether in TV shows, movies, or the news, is dedicated towards the discussion of Islam and terrorism, this dinner would presumably be an ideal time for Muslim leaders to engage and directly criticize the President of the United States and the government’s handling of issues relating to Muslims.
Unfortunately, instead of taking this opportunity to make a statement or take a stance against the many destructive policies enforced by the White House, Muslim leaders have repeatedly failed to act in the best interest of the Muslim population and instead have treated the invitation as a sign of their success, that they "made it." They then spend the day indulging in selfies and making it a point to show how proud and happy they are to be in the President's presence. It speaks very tellingly when the leaders of a community are more concerned with their celebrity and feign ignorance/obliviousness of political realities while soliciting themselves to a man that has repeatedly oppressed their people. When a young teenager like the famous Malala Yousafzai, a girl who lived in Pakistan her entire life and had little access to education, had not only the knowledge but the courage to tell the President - a representation of the "West" that exploited Malala as a political tool after catching wind of her story to shame and demonize the Muslim world further - to his face that his drone policies are fueling terrorism, what excuse do men and women who've had much more access to education, the internet, social media, years on Earth, and direct interaction with many activists that have been highlighting the atrocities the U.S. has been committing against the Muslim population near and abroad for years have?
The President doesn't shy away from belittling the Muslim community at these dinners either. In 2014 while Operation Protective Edge was occurring in Gaza, Palestine in which Israel murdered over 2,300 civilians, 70% of whom were civilians, Obama had invited the Israeli ambassador to give a speech to the Muslim leadership about the right for Israel to exist, engage in indiscriminate murder against Palestinians and then derided both the Arab world and Islam as housing a "cultural tendency towards belligerence," directly insulting and spitting in the face of all of the attendees and the billion Muslims around the world simultaneously. If that weren't enough, Obama echoed the sentiments of Israel's right to exist and right to use violence while also defending the indefensible and unconstitutional NSA surveillance program which disproportionately affects Muslims. It is important to understand that the fight for an independent Palestinian State is an issue that has been deeply embedded into the global Muslim identity for years and has been an issue used repeatedly by pundits and Israeli propagandists to dehumanize not only Palestinians, but Muslims overall and create a narrative that suggests a "clash of civilizations." It is an issue so important to Muslims that many (and many non-Muslims as well) are engaged in a boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) of anything tied to Israel as a means to place pressure on the state to give up its occupation of Gaza, re-establish Palestine and Israel as a single state, solely known as Palestine that belongs to the indigenous Palestinian populations, and removing the discriminatory policies existent. This movement takes direct inspiration from the boycotts that were successful in dismantling South African apartheid.
Essentially, Obama used a dinner to make a political statement and embarrass the Muslim community by using his power and their powerlessness due to being on his home turf and engaging on his terms, to his advantage. It is inconceivable to imagine a scenario in which a Hamas leader would be invited to any White House dinner hosting Israeli supporters and activists for the sole purpose of restating Palestine's right to exist and use violence against Israel. Ironically, Obama didn't approve of Congress doing what he did to Muslims in the Iftar dinner when just a year later Republicans invited Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to speak against the Iran nuclear negotiations that Obama was pushing for as a way to spite Obama and undermine his power in the country. In fact, Obama himself not only boycotted the speech, but requested others to follow suit. So if it's acceptable that Obama boycott a speech because it undermines his authority, then why is it not justified and just as principled for Muslim leaders to boycott a dinner that has shown to merely use Muslims as tools for political savvy?
With incidents such as these lurking in recent memory, Obama has shown himself to not be an ally to Muslims, nor particularly interested with the communities well-being as he continues to engage in drone strikes, surveillance of Muslims around the country, maintaining his failure to keep to his promise of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders need to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for the state of the community; if they aren't willing to do so due to feeling uncomfortable with talking about or inexperienced with politics altogether, then maybe they shouldn't be participating in an event housed in the most political institution and heavily involved politician in the country. The Muslim community has been participating in these dinners for 20 years now and nothing has changed for the Muslim community, things have gotten worse. All these dinners have shown to do is pacify the Muslim population and provide a platform in which Obama can feign support for Muslim causes and Muslims and hope that the less gullible are disenchanted from exposing his terrible track record when it comes to his policies. It's unpalatable that many leaders were chanting "4 more years" for a man whose foreign policies (i.e. how he treats Muslims in other countries) were shown to be the same or worse than the much maligned and demonized George Bush.
It's time for a change. The Muslim community should seek to collectively boycott this annual dinner to make a statement. Forcing the White House to meet the Muslim community on the terms of the Muslim community is much more efficient and likely to succeed in effective dialogue that will result in meaningful changes to policy than attempting to attend dinners and voicing displeasure to the President while he has to present a smile for the cameras and prepare the same generic speech he gives to the Muslim community about how American they are and how they need to make a more concerted effort to prevent radicalization. His constant aim to Americanize Muslims and emphasize how patriotic many Muslims are needs to be denied and dismissed as the political pandering that it is. Muslims don't need to be Americanized, they need to be humanized. Americanizing Muslims in America does nothing for Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Rohingyans, Chechnyans, Uyghurs, Turks, European Muslims, and many more whose lives have been ruined by direct or indirect consequences of U.S. and U.S. allies' policies.
The Muslim community must follow the lead of the black community, of whom 33% are Muslim themselves. It wasn't enough for black leaders that black Americans got their rights while fellow black men and women were experiencing segregation and apartheid overseas in South Africa or that innocent Vietnamese were being killed in an unjust war in the 60’s. Black leaders did not go easy on the administrations in the White House when they were vying for their communities' rights and they most definitely were not seeking approval or friendships with government officials. They demanded that the U.S. drop out of Vietnam, they demanded that the U.S. sanction South Africa until the apartheid state ceased its ways, they demanded that their people are given equal rights and treated with the respect that was being shown to White Americans. Muslim American leaders however don't seem to be interested in demanding, they don't even seem to be concerned with asking.
The U.S. boasts a history marred with militant policies that feed off of the exploitation of irrational fears and complacency of oppressed communities that persist only until they are directly challenged by organized communities that aren't playing into the hands of politicians who are implementing the policies in the first place. It's time for Muslims to do just that and begin investing in bottom-up movements (grassroots movement and awareness translating to social and political changes) rather than actively obscuring the prospect for change by perpetuating the myth of top-down socio-political reform (politicians taking initiative to change laws for the betterment of society rather than benefiting themselves) . Trying to appease government in order to gain a 'voice at the table' leaves the conversation in the control of the government. However, to force government officials to have conversations they are unwilling to have on terms that they don’t feel entirely comfortable (uncomfortable because the situation is out of their control and they must concede or risk political suicide) approaching because they’re starting to find public opinion and polling shifting against them due to the copious amount of sit-ins and uproar being made by the afflicted communities, would not only be more effective, but more dignified for the communities.
To dismiss the successes of the more experienced and knowledgeable black activists of the past in improving the lives of and policies affecting their people in favor of an approach that has proven to be foolhardy and ineffective in changing any ongoing policies is not only irresponsible of the leadership but is just as much a testament of the arrogance of Muslim leaders who constantly acknowledge their lack of knowledge of politics and political activism. The Muslim community could do better without leaders who are aloof and only serve power with their strangling of progressive activism and the potential for realistic improvement in exchange for enjoying tea and selfies with the president. It would serve the community well to know that oppression has never stopped because the oppressor suddenly decided that they no longer want to oppress people, but has always been done through challenging the status quo with a unified voice and goals from the afflicted group.
Any real aspirations for a better life for Muslims in America and abroad can only be sought if there’s a unifying element in the community; a unifying element that must come with competent leadership and a collective political awareness of the difference between surface level engagement by and with government officials and engagement that respects and adheres to the root causes of the justified frustration of the community. If Muslims continually go to these White House dinners the president won’t start wondering why the Muslim community still engages with the White House, instead he’ll take it as a sign that the Muslim community is on friendly relations with him and hence no issues need to be resolved since none are big enough to sever any relations as of yet.
Now, consider a scenario where the President has invited hundreds of Muslim leaders around the country and every single one of them refused to show up. Surely not only would the President recognize that there is a divide between his interests and the Muslim community’s interests but it would lead to immense pressure from both the media exposure of the situation and the general embarrassment that comes when people don’t like a person enough to show up at their forgettable party. The amount of pressure a politician would be facing following such an incident would surely prove to be much more impactful than just attending the dinner with no intention of causing any obstruction to the normal scheduling of the event. Boycotting provides the community control of the dialogue with power, it presents a choice where previously there was none. The President in almost any circumstance would not allow for someone to speak on a platform where he can be called out or called to answer for his unjust policies without being informed and prepared to provide a rebuttal prior, that’s just bad politics. Deciding to give up the power of your community by attending a dinner organized by someone actively suppressing your community's rights? That's just bad politics.