Rami Nashashibi: Iftar at the White House- Navigating Power, Privilege & Justice in Ramadan
Last week, I was among several dozen Muslims who attended an iftar at the White House with President Obama. This has now become an annual tradition where the President extends greetings to the Muslim community and occasionally chooses to speak to other relevant issues. Two years ago, for example, President Obama selected this occasion as a platform to weigh in on the sensational anti-Muslim hysteria taking place in the debate around the proposed Cordoba House project in Lower Manhattan, otherwise known as the Ground Zero Mosque. At the time, the critique was mainly from extreme edges of the right wing who managed to make some noise about the President’s alleged “pro-Muslim” leanings.
This time around, most of the push back regarding the iftar I heard was coming from voices within the Muslim community. It wasn’t until two days before the event that I became aware of a handful of these folks on social media using #WhiteHouseIftar to express their critiques. At one point I tweeted that I was indeed among those who were invited and would be attending. Among those who responded were some who urged me to boycott the iftar and said that by attending I was providing “political cover” for some of the administration’s most intensely contested foreign and domestic policies: mainly drone attacks, surveillance and forced feeding on Gitmo.
In spite of my brief exchange on Twitter in which I admitted sharing some of the substantive critiques of this administration and policies in question, I did not rescind my acceptance of the invitation for the following reasons:
1-I Reject the Notion That Showing Up is Giving Up
Showing up to an iftar at the White House, State Department, Governor’s Mansion, Police Department or anywhere else for that matter, is not giving up the ability to passionately dissent with and even protest the policies of the host. While some had an opportunity to debate things like the drone attacks with the President and his staff directly, I don’t think any of us were under any naive impression that such conversation was going to affect change on any of the issues in question. I have worked alongside some very good old-school Chicago organizers in the field long enough to know that “power concedes nothing without a demand” and from my experience that demand is best built through coalitions, alliances and relationships with leaders who are ready to put it on the line for one issue or a platform of issues, which leads me to the next reason that I didn’t participate in an impromptu call for a boycott.
2-Organizing a Grassroots Boycott
The closest I saw to something resembling a planned boycott was what well-respected Dr. Omid Safi provided in terms of a platform. Dr Safi’s list is a fair starting point for national mobilization around such an idea that I would be ready to participate in, although, I would agitate to make certain that our “Muslim” list of policy gripes doesn’t get conflated with a set of issues that leave out criminal justice reform, housing polices, mass incarceration, the farm bill and real investment infrastructure issues that affect millions of people on the ground every day.
I would also make certain that our platform is one that has the support and leadership of some important political allies and alliances in the field. For example, for the last ten years, IMAN has been involved in building an alliance of communities of color that stresses the critical importance of pushing inclusive platforms so that we fight off the notion that any one issue is a “black”, “Latino” or “Muslim” issue. While it is definitely easier to get a small group of people to intellectually coalesce around such an idea, it is much more difficult to build a broad base of community leaders that are ready to sacrifice politically for issues directly affecting the community. The idea of rallying alone with the same group of people for 15 years or organizing in silos to me is ineffective and a chronically flawed aspect of many of our movements.
Yet, once all those things are in place and we have explored all of our creative modes of nonviolent protest and decide that among those tactics a boycott of all White House and State Department invitations is among the things we agree upon, I will be the first to publicly consider supporting such an initiative.
3- “More Revolutionary Than Thou” Declarations
Some of the opinions on Twitter cast people who selected to attend this iftar or the State Department iftar as a bunch of sell-out Muslims crossing some virtual picket-line and trading in principle for an illusory moment to ingratiate themselves with the President or Secretary of State. Again, I do appreciate genuine healthy agitation and felt like some of the comments were truly coming from that spirit but there is certainly a thin line between that and the “more-revolutionary-than-thou” rhetorical posturing that attempts to bully people into acquiescence. I’ve been around long enough to respect the former and instinctively resist the latter.
-So why did I attend?
I am the executive director of a nonprofit organization that organizes around a number of key issues impacting low-income communities of color while providing direct services to those same community members. We build deep relationships and alliances so we can push through on a number of fronts and in that process we forge various strategic relationships with a diverse group of political actors. I am often called into meetings or accept invitations to sit down or have lunch with the same people we were protesting against six months ago or will be protesting and challenging a year from now: that’s what living in a robust democracy is all about. There are voices that may assert that talking or engaging with any high-level representation of authority is a wholesale endorsement of that entity’s agenda and tactics. These folks have their right to maintain that opinion and, in fact, some go further to make the argument that any form of political participation is a form a collaboration with “the Empire.” Such stances do little in the way of offering community groups on the ground with the means of navigating the world as it is with a clear, consistent and sustainable trajectory to build long-term institutional capacity with integrity and conviction around enduring principles and values.
I went to the White House Iftar not because I don’t have issues with some of the administration’s foreign and domestic policies. As previously stated, I certainly do. Yet, I also appreciate this administration’s commitment to fight back against the further demonization of Muslims and Islam domestically, something worth highlighting particularly considering how things could’ve gone after several high-profile attempts to carry out sensational acts of violence in this country by Muslims with deep grievances against America.
I went because I believe in the process of critical engagement which I define as a long-term commitment to shape, deeply inform and/or passionately contest the often disparate policies and conditions that govern our lives or sustain profound inequalities in the world. Such a process carries with it an admission that we certainly will make mistakes along the way and perhaps even fail to insert ourselves more forcefully around an issue or two.
Ramadan is an ideal time to interrogate how far our private and public actions are from the loftier ideals that our faith traditions call us to. It is a perfect time to scrutinize the privilege that some of us disproportionately benefit from and to honestly consider all the types of unjust power structures and policies we contribute to through our tacit support or deafening silence.