Why I, a Palestinian-American Muslim, went to the White House Iftar and what I learned

US Politics
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President Barack Obama hosts an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House, July 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama hosts an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House, July 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

This past Monday, I attended the controversial White House Iftar – controversial because what was historically an outreach effort to the American Muslim community during the holy month of Ramadan was brazenly co-opted this year and turned into a provocative endorsement of Israel amidst its most recent massacre in the Gaza Strip.

Before accepting the invitation to attend, I was caught in an internal debate that mirrored the split opinion in the American Muslim community: Would attending the White House Iftar be interpreted as condoning illegal and unconstitutional breaches of American Muslims civil rights, such as the NSA spying on American Muslims, the use of drones and extrajudicial killings in countries where many American Muslims have family members, the indefinite imprisonment and torture of exonerated prisoners in Guantanamo, or the unbridled support of Israel in the face of its continued occupation of Palestine? Or – would not attending the White House Iftar be injurious to the outcome of these issues as there would be no one to advocate or speak out against these problems in the long run?

My decision to eventually partake in this ceremonial function was not made so I can enjoy an evening of privileged access and socializing. No, I was there to learn, to broaden my horizons, and to bring problematic issues to light. I was there to network with Muslim individuals and leaders across the nation, intending for these connections to serve me in a greater capacity in my future as a grassroots organizer for peace and justice. And I intended to talk with the President about the very issues that made me question my government’s commitment to equal rights and protection for all its citizens, especially marginalized minorities.

Tarik Takkesh, left, standing with an acquaintance with President Obama in the background.

Tarik Takkesh, left, standing with an acquaintance, President Obama in the background.

I was not born in Palestine, yet Palestine is borne in me. I visited the White House, and with me I took a part of the Palestinian heritage. Though I was advised by friends not to wear a “Palestine” scarf, ultimately I did. It was the only possible badge of honor I could that cloudy evening. As U.S. citizens, we each have a moral responsibility to make sure our tax money is being used to ensure safety for our country instead of supporting the Israeli apartheid through our annual donation of $3.1 billion that funds the occupation of Palestinian lands.

It was during the networking portion of the night that I first noticed the Israeli ambassador amongst the crowd, sitting eerily alone and reviewing the Muslim attendees like a watch guard at a security checkpoint. In my shock, I wondered – 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?

Monday’s Iftar was a discourteous gesture on behalf of the host, when he symbolically slapped his Muslim guests not once, but twice, in the face. The invitation of the Israeli ambassador to the Iftar (unbeknownst to me until my arrival) was a strike, but the President’s reiteration of support of Israel during his speech was two. My blood boiled, yet I waited to hear the completion of the despicably scripted commentary so I could respond. As soon as the President’s speech came to an end, however, it was clear that this Iftar was not an event aimed at fostering real dialogue. Instead, it was a one-sided narrative, and the President left the room quickly after the dinner.

To my dear critics hiding behind keyboards and virtual screens, it’s easy for you to say you would have boycotted or walked out. It is always easier to say something retrospectively. Much of the recent uproar on social media comes in response to the unexpected comments made by President Obama, where he used the event to express his staunch support for Israel even during the newest massacre in Gaza in which over 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured. I was blindsided by the President’s remarks, and was shocked to see him make a mockery of the gathering by restating irrelevant party lines and voicing support for Israel. But again, the comments were unexpected. Had they been expected, I can guarantee that at least my seat would have been vacant.

While I respect my brother-in-faith Keith Ellison, I disagree with his statement regarding the ineffectiveness of a boycott. I contend that a boycott is effective – if done in a properly planned fashion. Having one or two dissenters boycott an event is dissimilar in effect to a complete and outright shunning of the White House Iftar. With the Muslim Public Affairs Council committing to attendance and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee boycotting, the Muslim voice was divided, in essence crushing any hope of a resounding statement.

As the only individual in the room who refused to applaud the President after his speech, I left the event jaded and irritated. Some of the attendees were busy gloating about their seating arrangements: blind, complacent, and oblivious to the degradation they had just suffered. Others were speaking of the food: blind, complacent, and oblivious to the menu that was scattered around the 12 different tables.

Now, for the quintessential question: Would I go again? Yes. Would I do it differently? Absolutely. I would be ready to respond to such humiliation in a more dignified manner. I have learned from my mistake (N.b. my mistake was not in my attendance, but my silence). Turning the clocks would not witness history repeat itself, but hindsight is 20/20 and I regret not responding in the moment. It is inappropriate for the President to act in such a disrespectful and tactless manner at a religious affair that is meant to celebrate Muslim culture and faith.

On the drive back to the airport, my Muslim cab driver offered some words of wisdom, “Hearing a lion roar might make you run a little, but seeing a lion with your own two eyes will make you run for your life.” It’s true. Feeling the shame of such a direct disgrace firsthand was an unforgettable experience, and the President’s words have been burned into my conscience. They will drive me. They will move me. And I will move my community. Much like the Gazans, I was shell shocked. And much like the Gazans, I am better prepared for the next offensive.

About Tarik Takkesh

Tarik Takkesh is a graduate of Neuroscience, B.S. & Arabic, B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently serves as the Director of Statewide Affairs for Covered California at Access California Services. He is a speaker and social justice advocate.

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29 Responses

  1. ckg
    July 18, 2014, 2:46 pm

    I noticed that the Israeli ambassador was on the invitation list. Maybe then Obama should have also invited the Myanmar, Sri Lanka and China ambassadors for camaraderie.

    • AlGhorear
      July 18, 2014, 3:12 pm

      @ckg Obama should invite a member of Hamas to the next Whitehouse Passover seder dinner.

      • bilal a
        July 18, 2014, 7:37 pm

        is this when yahweh sends the angel of death to kill the gentile first born children and passover the jews? The rabbis must be chuckling:

        DC: CAIR Director Attends Interfaith Passover Seder
        http://www.cair.com/press-center/press-releases/2371-dc-cair-director-attends-interfaith-passover-seder.html

      • ritzl
        July 18, 2014, 9:01 pm

        @AlGhorear- I hope someone there asked him that question directly. Or Iran? And Dermer as well. It would be great to hear their non-answers.

        These people are too smart to “not get it.” This had to be intentional. But why? What did Obama gain by doing this?

  2. Justpassingby
    July 18, 2014, 2:57 pm

    No offense but muslims groups in america needs to stop being lied to by obama, how can any palestinians (well any human being) want to take a picture with obama (or listen to him talk about middle east) after all he have done against palestinians is beyond my understanding.

    • Citizen
      July 18, 2014, 6:33 pm

      If you read the pro-Israel web sites, the commenters under the articles all complain about Obama’s and the mainstream news media’s pro-Palestinian bias. Too, we have that African group who kidnapped all the young women–their ideology leader, very well educated in the West, is against all forms of Western Civilization, which in his mind is not separable from colonialism–he also literally believes the world is flat.

  3. AlGhorear
    July 18, 2014, 3:05 pm

    Hi Tarik, I’m glad you posted your experience at the Whitehouse Iftar Dinner. I wondered why anyone would want to attend given Obama’s craven support for Israel’s slaughter in Gaza and his abominable characterization of it as self-defense. That’s also the same day that the State Department spokesperson blamed Hamas for the killing of the 4 young boys playing football on the Gaza beach because Hamas didn’t accept the ceasefire.

    I doubt you’ll get invited again, after writing this piece, but I appreciate that you learned something from it and that it’s inspired you to engage in more activism.

  4. just
    July 18, 2014, 3:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I am sure that you were shocked, as I am now learning of this– who could have expected this to happen? Didn’t anybody advise him that inviting Dermer would not be kosher? And why did Dermer accept? Didn’t he think that bringing up his complete support for Israel be less than kosher?

    Don’t beat yourself up. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Tarik. Obama does.

    • Jethro
      July 18, 2014, 7:03 pm

      Deemed was there to make sure the President stuck it to his guests like he was supposed to.

  5. belewlaw
    July 18, 2014, 4:25 pm

    I am astounded by the political ineptness of this. Is the president so politically out of tune as to not understand the insult of Dermer and the defense of Israel in his speech? Is there no one on his staff that has a clue? Is Obama willing to insult Muslims because he believes they will take the abuse passively?

    • Boomer
      July 18, 2014, 4:55 pm

      Re: “Is the president so politically out of tune as to not understand the insult of Dermer and the defense of Israel in his speech?”

      On the contrary, he dances precisely in tune with the music: “who pays the piper calls the tune.”

      • taofeek
        July 20, 2014, 6:50 am

        No @Boomer Believe me the president did that because he wants something from Israel that Palestine doesn’t have, its all politics America does it all the time its not something new

    • MHughes976
      July 18, 2014, 5:03 pm

      Yes, it’s because there is a political cost in annoying Israeli sympathisers even a little, no political cost in annoying Palestinian sympathisers even a lot. When his memoirs appear he will explain that he didn’t really mean it.

      • Castellio
        July 19, 2014, 5:11 pm

        I think he’ll explain, rather, that it was a “difficult” but “necessary” thing to do. Hard, but he was up to it. It took courage, but that is what good leaders must “find within themselves”.

        That sort of thing.

  6. AppleFolsom
    July 18, 2014, 4:36 pm

    I am also glad you wrote this Tarik. As an American who has only realized the depth of lies that have been told to us, I can only hope that in sharing your story that other Americans will see how one-sided US policy is toward Israel.

    I am very ashamed of our President and legislators in that none can provide the leadership this country and world so desperately needs.

    I hope you will take heart that Americans do not wish for the suffering in Palestine and we are contacting our legislators and boycotting Israeli goods in an effort to effect change.

    I fear that due to the actions of the American and Israeli leaders in government, American and Israeli citizens will soon be friendless in the world.

  7. lyn117
    July 18, 2014, 5:38 pm

    Next time, all the people who boycotted should go and wear the Palestine scarf you wore. And not clap either. Wave in front of Dermer’s face.

  8. Miriam
    July 18, 2014, 5:54 pm

    I’d read (Prof) Tariq Ramadan’s statement on his attending the WH Iftar….and at the shock and silence when Obama introduced first speaker, ron dermer, who LECTURED the esteemed guests, as if they were naughty school kids….about the negatives within Arab and Palestinian culture. I am glad that this young man has posted his sentiments …and I must add that I found a link that connected me with tweets that Dermer sent out afterwards…to his cohorts who cheered his lecture… What meds does Obama take ?? I encourage folks to look up Tariq Ramadan on FB to read his full statement.

    • Walid
      July 19, 2014, 7:05 am

      Muslims, especially Arab ones, which include Tariq Takkech should have walked out of the dinner when they saw the Israeli ambassador there. It wouldn’t have been any more rude than Obama having invited Dermer for no good reason. That they sat there throughout the ordeal while their noses were rubbed in the shit by Obama, I can only say that they deserved it.

      Getting back to the other Tariq that you mentioned, Mariam, Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna that founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 although Ramadan’s ideology is miles apart from the Brothers’ fundamentalism of today, as you mentioned, he wrote in Facebook about the infamous iftar:


      Tariq Ramadan (official)
      15 juillet, 16:52 · Modifié ·

      IFTAR AT THE WHITE HOUSE

      It was supposed to be an evening where the American President showed respect to a religious community, to the millions of American Muslims who have been fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan.

      It was supposed to be a political expression of respect. It ended up being a political instrumentalisation of (voluntarily) trapped Muslim leaders listening to President Obama justify the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians, declaring Israel has the right to defend itself. One wonders what is the relationship between the Iftar celebration and Israel ? What is the US administration’s implicit-explicit intention in putting the Muslim leaders in such an embarrassing situation? To test their loyalty or rather their capacity to compromise or betray? They obviously remained silent.

      The Israeli ambassador, Mr. Ron Dermer, also invited (why?), was actually the first to speak. One must remember what he said about Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims : Palestinians have “a cultural tendency towards belligerency” that is “deeply embedded in the culture of the Arab world and its foremost religion”. This is the man who was invited to celebrate Iftar with the Muslims meanwhile his Government is destroying Gaza. From the White House he tweeted, triumphantly : “@WhiteHouse for Iftar dinner. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself.”

      Obviously Muslim leaders didn’t tweet. It was enough of an honor for them to be invited to the White House and to have met the President. An honor, truly, dear Muslim leaders? Ordinary Muslims (and proponents of justice and dignity from other religions) in the US and around the world, as well as Palestinians, might think differently.”

  9. Nasihah
    July 18, 2014, 6:26 pm

    First of all it was disrespectful for the white house to invite the israeli to a Muslim/Islamic feast such as the Iftar. For what reason should he be there with the on going turmoil his fellow countrymen are inflicting upon the Gaza Muslims! THIS YOUNG MAN SHOULD HAVE SPOKE UP ON THE SPOT REGARDLESS OF THE OUTCOME AND NOT WAIT TILL HE IS ASKED TO COME BACK NEXT YEAR; FOR WHAT? THE WHITE HOUSE IFTAR IS A JOKE AND THE MUSLIMS WHO GO ARE BEING FOOLED TO BELIEVE THE PRESIDENT LET ALONE THE WHITE REALLY CARES FOR THEM, THE IFTAR, RAMADHAN OR THE MUSLIMS! PLEASE WAKE UP!

    • Walid
      July 19, 2014, 7:14 am

      A real good nasihah, Nasihah, Tariq is going to need much more than this mini mea culpa, to absolve himself of the stuff dumped on him and the others by Obama. A long cold shower would be of help.

  10. Citizen
    July 18, 2014, 6:41 pm

    I wonder if Mr. Takkesh was equally shocked by the very recent Senate resolution kissing Israel, 100% pure AIPAC boot lickers, including those labeled “progressive.”

  11. Stephen Shenfield
    July 18, 2014, 7:51 pm

    When something happens that is so much worse, so much more brazen than anything you were expecting, the shock of it can have a paralyzing effect and prevent you from reacting. However, you should not have made public your resolve to react next time. There won’t be a next time. They won’t invite you again.

  12. Vacy
    July 18, 2014, 7:53 pm

    The lesson was worth it Tarik..now you are the lion and inspire the lion in us so we too roar loudly for Palestine.

  13. American
    July 18, 2014, 8:01 pm

    ”President’s words have been burned into my conscience. They will drive me. They will move me. And I will move my community”

    Good, me too buddy.
    For whatever reason, after all the pictures I have seen of dead Palestine children, the one of 5 year old Saher Abu Namous alive and happy sitting by the sea before Israel split his head in two, got me the most. I cant explain why this particular boy . It kept me awake for 2 nights, still keeps me awake at night.
    His picture is now my computer wallpaper and I carry a copy of his picture in my wallet.
    Someone is going to pay for him , that is what is driving me.

  14. American
    July 18, 2014, 8:25 pm

    Obama is nothing, he is led around by the nose by his handlers because he is totally out of his depth.
    Maybe he’ll invite the KKK Grand Wizard to a WH dinner for the Congressional Black Democrats next.

  15. Marnie
    July 19, 2014, 2:15 am

    Thank you for this. I don’t know how you were able to keep it together during the bulldozing of the meal with the unwelcome israel love fest and the space occupying lesion Herr Dermer.

  16. bilal a
    July 19, 2014, 6:26 am

    how shameful

    Tariq Ramadan on the White House Iftar
    https://fr-fr.facebook.com/official.tariqramadan/posts/893706043977026

  17. kma
    July 19, 2014, 12:30 pm

    Tariq was afraid to wear the Palestine scarf, and afraid when he did not applaud the insults.
    I would guess that now he is SO GLAD he did those things.

    he was the one LEAST afraid, out of ALL of the attendees.

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