Published in the Guardian
Written by Elle Hunt and David Smith
Donald Trump has been criticised for not hosting an iftar dinner during Ramadan, breaking a nearly 20-year tradition.
Despite events held by previous administrations from across the political divide, this year’s Ramadan – which began on 26 May – passed nearly unobserved by the White House. It was marked only by a statement published late on Saturday afternoon, coinciding with the end of the holy month.
The first White House iftar dinner is said to have been hosted by President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Guests included a Tunisian ambassador to the US.
Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, resurrected the event in February 1996, hosting about 150 people for a reception for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.
The sunset dinner, attended by legislators, diplomats and leaders within the US Muslim community, went on to become an annual tradition starting in 1999, observed by the past three administrations.
George W Bush held an iftar dinner every year of his two terms, including just after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under Bush, said: “From President Bush’s perspective, it was important post-9/11 for the administration and to show the White House and the US is inclusive of all people and religions, especially after such a traumatic event. We were not at war with Islam itself but with terrorist organisations.
“President Bush went out of his way to wrap his arms around the Muslim community. I don’t know why the current administration made this decision.”
Barack Obama hosted his first Ramadan dinner in 2009, and subsequently every year of his presidency. He visited a mosque in Baltimore last year and spoke out against Muslim stereotypes in TV dramas.
The Washington Post reported that Saturday’s White House statement was signed by Donald and Melania Trump, and was not posted to the president’s social media presences. It read: “Muslims in the United States joined those around the world during the holy month of Ramadan to focus on acts of faith and charity.
“Now, as they commemorate Eid with family and friends, they carry on the tradition of helping neighbours and breaking bread with people from all walks of life. During this holiday, we are reminded of the importance of mercy, compassion, and goodwill. With Muslims around the world, the United States renews our commitment to honor these values. Eid Mubarak.”
But Trump was condemned for canceling the annual dinner. Washington-based Mamadou Samba, of Senegalese origin, who attended the iftar celebration hosted by Obama in 2015, said: “As a tradition held by US presidents, I personally appreciate the reception as recognition of our faith and as Muslim Americans. I looked forward to it this year but was a bit disappointed that it did not occur and wonder what it means to have skipped it.”
TalibShareef, imam of the Nation’s Mosque in Washington, told Newsweek magazine: “It is disappointing because that’s been a good tradition. To stop it doesn’t send a good message. You get the chance to go golfing and all this other kind of stuff. How come you don’t have time for a population of your society that needs some assistance? The message that it sends is that we’re not that important.”
Others suggested the iftar dinner controversy was just the tip of an iceberg. Haroon Moghul, a fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the memoir How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, said: “[Trump] shows no concern for our rights, employs the worst anti-Muslim bigots in his administration, and enshrines Islamophobia into law.
“Just with this travel ban, the lives of thousands of Americans – and that’s who they are, because they live and work and contribute to here – are ruined. It is the beginning of his hatred of us, rhetoric unfolding into policy, and not the end. What difference would a dinner invitation make to any of these things?”
In May, Reuters reported that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had refused a recommendation by the state department’s office of religion and global affairs – which typically initiates such events – to host a reception marking Eid al-Fitr.
A state department spokesperson told Reuters it was “still exploring possible options for observance of Eid al-Fitr. US ambassadors are encouraged to celebrate Ramadan through a variety of activities, which are held annually at missions around the world.”
The Trump administration has been accused of Islamophobia for the president’s controversial proposed travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries. After the presidential order was temporarily blocked by two federal appeals courts, the US supreme court on Monday reinstated significant elements of the ban. Trump was quick to claim a victory.
This month, about 100 Muslim activists protested against the US president’s divisive policies and rhetoric on Islam outside Trump Tower in New York. The group prayed and broke fast outside the president’s business headquarters late on 1 June, as part of the “#IftarInTheStreets” action organised by immigrant advocacy groups.
Asked why the dinner did not take place, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday: “I don’t know.”