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White House scales back iftar event as Gaza horrors trigger declined invites

Palestinian Americans are urging a boycott of the iftar and any engagement with the Biden administration
US President Joe Biden speaks during a reception celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in the East Room of the White House on 1 May 2023 in Washington DC.
US President Joe Biden speaks during a reception celebrating Eid-al-Fitr at the White House on 1 May 2023 in Washington DC (Alex Wong/Getty images via AFP)

The Biden administration is hosting a scaled-down Ramadan gathering for Muslim and Arab Americans after several community leaders declined the invite over the unrelenting and steadfast nature of US support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

The event scheduled for Tuesday will be in stark contrast to previous Muslim celebrations and gatherings under the Biden administration, which have seen packed ballrooms of Muslims from all over the country joining the White House festivities. 

This year, the iftar will be confined to staffers only, and a separate gathering will take place for Muslim community members.

Still, with the guest list for this meeting unclear, Palestinian Americans from Gaza have banded together to urge all Muslim and Arab- American community leaders to boycott engagements with the Biden administration.

Reem al-Dadah, a Palestinian American from Gaza and spokesperson for the Gaza Palestinian American Association (GPAA), told Middle East Eye that they are "vehemently opposed to any Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, or any person who has an ounce of humanity" attending the event.

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"Our families in Gaza are being slaughtered, deprived of food and water, and infectious diseases are rampant," Dadah said.

"And we would have the audacity to sit with those who have an enormous hand in the genocide? That would be appalling, it would be shameful. Absolutely deplorable."

'No Muslim leader worth their salt would voluntarily break bread with its members, especially more so in Ramadan'

-Zahra Billoo, Cair-SF

The Ramadan gathering reflects a significant change in plans.

Originally, US media reports said that the White House was hosting an iftar that would comprise around 15 people, including US President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, national security advisor Jake Sullivan, and several Muslim staffers and doctors who recently were in Gaza.

The White House will now host a separate iftar for about a dozen Muslim staffers. A Biden staffer who spoke to MEE anonymously confirmed the details of the iftar and a separate gathering with community members.

Sources told MEE that several Muslim leaders who were invited declined the offer.

The GPAA shared a statement with MEE late on Monday, in which it called on Muslim and Arab community leaders to boycott the event.

"We urge leaders to elevate and center Palestinian voices, advocate for their rights on global platforms, and respectfully decline the invitation, accompanied by a statement explaining their decision to maintain pressure on the administration," the statement said.

'Extremely self-serving'

Zeina Ashrawi Hutchinson, a Palestinian-American activist, said it was "astounding" for the administration to try and invite community leaders to this gathering at the same time that Biden sent another batch of bombs and weapons to Israel worth more than a billion dollars.

"It was only when the Biden administration saw the large movement for Palestine that they realised that they needed to do something not, not on principle, not for integrity's sake, not for legal aspect, not for the benefit of the United States, only for the benefit of their political campaigns and Israel’s settler colonial agenda," said Ashrawi Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, who also serves as development director at the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, said that Palestinian activists like her have been trying to stop the engagement between the community members and the administration since October. 

"Their intention isn't to include and listen to Arab Americans, Palestinian Americans and Muslim Americans, nor is it to take action on something that we care very much about. But rather it's to help themselves and to get votes and to pander in order to potentially win elections," Hutchinson said.

She added that the Biden administration has shown no signs of toning down its support for Israel's war, which many legal and rights experts have labelled a genocide.

"These meetings are extremely self-serving for this administration, and are an attempt to undermine our movement and its unity behind our Palestinian people enduring horrors in Gaza and all over Palestine."

The consternation comes following a series of recent iftar events in which Muslim Americans had either hosted or participated with elected officials or political appointees who have been supporters of Israel’s war on Gaza, including with the Biden administration.

"The Biden administration is complicit in genocide, having permitted, funded, and armed the Israeli Occupation Forces," said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in San Francisco (Cair-SF).

"No Muslim leader worth their salt would voluntarily break bread with its members, especially more so in Ramadan. Anyone who does is delusional about their influence and out of step with the communities they claim to speak for," Billoo added.

On Friday, the Pakistani American Skilled Women Organization (PASWO) held an iftar featuring New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, in the borough of Brooklyn.

Pakistani American Skilled Women Organization (PASWO) and Mayor Eric Adams (Eric Adams/X)
Pakistani American Skilled Women Organization members and New York City mayor Eric Adams (Eric Adams/X)

While Adams addressed the crowd, he was heckled by a woman in the audience. Organisers were seen trying to shut the protester down by clapping over her voice. 

Adams is a staunch supporter of Israel, having travelled to the country as mayor as recently as August 2023.

Following the events of 7 October, when a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel sparked the war on Gaza, Adams took part in a New York Stands with Israel rally and described Israel's fight as "our fight".

Under his leadership, the NYPD has clamped down on pro-Palestine protesters.

Iftars and 'photo ops'

In another event over the weekend, Imam Mohamed Magid from the Adams Center, and Rashad Husain, the United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, were seen at an iftar hosted by US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Thomas-Greenfield has been the face of Washington’s position vis-a-vis the war on Gaza at the UN Security Council, invoking the American veto on three occasions to prevent a ceasefire resolution. 

On 25 March, Thomas-Greenfield abstained from the latest ceasefire vote, allowing the resolution to pass.

“From Sudan to Gaza, Afghanistan to Xinjiang, millions of families find themselves without food to break the fast, without a safe place to pray, without loved ones to lean on,” the ambassador wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

“We must redouble our efforts to advance peace and security in every corner of the world,” she added.

Both Magid and Husain were widely berated for attending the event.

Imam Magid (left), Linda-Thomas-Greenfield and Rashad Husain at an iftar on March 30 [Twitter/X]
Left to right: Imam Mohamed Magid, Linda-Thomas-Greenfield, and Rashad Husain at an iftar event, on 30 March (X social media platform)

Raja Abdulhaq, a Palestinian activist and former executive director at the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, told MEE that it is a betrayal to the people of Gaza to see Muslim Americans break their fast with the same people supporting the genocide.

"It normalises complicity in genocide because we are rewarding politicians with these iftars instead of holding them accountable. In addition, it undermines the community's efforts to put pressure on the US administration to stop the genocide against our brothers and sisters in Gaza," he said.

Abdulhaq added that such meetings end up resulting in the dehumanisation of Palestinians.

"In essence, this dehumanisation happens when 'good Muslims' can have iftars and good time with American politicians while these same politicians continue their support of the genocide in Gaza without any concern for the lives of Palestinians," Abdulhaq added.

Likewise, Billoo from Cair-SF, said the meeting looked like a photo opportunity with ambassador Thomas-Greenfield rather than a strategic political engagement. 

"While our movement allies are quitting their administration jobs and others are blocking bridges and engaging in various forms of direct action, it is disappointing to see Imam Magid and ambassador Hussein reducing themselves to participating in government propaganda, smiling and posing for pictures with the very people who are enabling genocide," Billoo added.

Imam Magid and Rashad Husain did not reply to MEE's request for comment.

A senior State Department official told MEE that officials like ambassador Husain routinely meet with other officials to report back from communities around the world to convey messages of US policy.

White House iftar celebrations date back to former US President Bill Clinton's time in office.

These events have been routinely met with fierce backlash from several Muslim Americans who argue that the encounters serve no purpose other than to appease Muslim-American political elites looking for proximity and access to the US government and provide a photo-op for American presidents.

Muslim Americans who have taken part in the engagements have argued these encounters were necessary to have face time with the president and the administration.

But others, like Abdulhaq, say that these events have brought few benefits to the larger community. He says that they have neither put an end to domestic policies targeting Muslims nor vicious foreign policy excursions in Muslim-majority countries abroad. 

During Operation Protective Edge in July 2014 - during which Israel bombed Gaza for 50 days resulting in the killing of around 2200 Palestinians - US President Barack Obama infamously invoked Israel's right to self-defence and invited the Israeli ambassador to Washington to address his Muslim guests during the iftar hosted at the White House. 

"It's clear that all of these engagements have not brought us any kind of hope. None of those interactions have been able to stop the genocide or end any of the suffering in Gaza," Abdulhaq said.

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