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

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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.

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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.

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.

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… Read more »

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.

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?