Why I Skipped the White House’s Ramadan Dinner

By Asraa Mustufa Jul 23, 2014

In early July The Intercept reported that the FBI and NSA had been spying on mainstream American Muslim community leaders. This development, coupled with frustration over the United States’ stance on the war in Gaza, led some prominent Muslims to skip the annual White House iftar–a high-profile dinner during Ramadan where guests break their day-long fast with the president and other dignitaries.

Leading the call to boycott this year’s White House and other government-sponsored iftars was the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights organization in the country. Their decision prompted much discussion. Muslim congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) released a statement saying, "While I certainly share the concerns of the people who have called for the boycott, I disagree with the tactic." Meanwhile, an online open letter supporting the boycott garnered scores of signatures. In the following as-told-to ADC President Samer Khalaf explains why the organization called for a boycott of the iftar.

"A culmination of many things led us to the decision to boycott. The recent reports about the NSA’s surveillance of Arab-American and Muslim-American leaders prompted us to take a serious look at not attending. Secondly, because of [the war] in Gaza, we did not think it was appropriate to be in a social setting with government officials at a time when our loved ones are being killed in Gaza and our government has condoned this killing.

What we wanted to stress–and what a lot of people have misunderstood–is that we were not saying to boycott or disengage with the government. Dialogue with government agencies has been part of our daily work, and we understand the need to be at the table [to] discuss substantive policy issues. Our organization has reached out to the president numerous times regarding these issues and as a community we’ve been doing a lot of engagement over the last several years. Maybe we have to rethink that, because it’s obviously falling on deaf ears. They want our votes and our money, but apparently they don’t want to hear from us.

We want this administration to start following the constitution of the United States. I don’t care under what guise they say they’re [spying]. If you are violating the constitution of the United States, you need to stop.

The unfortunate thing is that we don’t know exactly what’s going on. They could be surveilling my organization right now, listening to my phone conversation and checking my e-mail. All we do know is that are individuals at organizations who were under surveillance for as [long] as six years. Does it really take six years to determine whether or not somebody is a threat?

We need to know what is going on, that the surveillance has ended or at least we need to put in some safeguards. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is supposed to be doing that, but obviously it’s not working. We talked to the NSA prior to the Intercept article coming out. The NSA pretty much said that they’re not going to comment. Since then, a coalition got together and decided that the best way to move forward is to demand a meeting with these officials. There has been no response.

Likewise, when the assault on Gaza started, we immediately requested a meeting with the State Department to express the views of the Arab- and Palestinian-American community. Again, there has been no response.

After hearing about the president’s comments on this issue during the White House iftar I am extremely disappointed and embarrassed for my president and my country. [Obama said in part,"Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Now I will say very clearly, no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas. At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians."–Ed.]  …The president talks about Israel’s right to self-defense, but what about the Palestinians’ rights to live in freedom? …What about the right not to have their houses destroyed? What about their right to be free from settler violence? What about their rights to land ownership?

…I know that the administration has worked hard regarding the peace process, but the problem is, without putting any pressure on the Israeli government it’s not going to matter. The United States gives [PDF] well over $3 billion in aid annually to the Israeli government, and most of that is militaristic. So for them to say, ‘Well, we’re doing everything we can,’ well, no, they’re not. They need to tell Israel, ‘Unless you undergo sincere and good-faith negotiations to end this, then maybe we need to [re-examine] our aid to you.’ But instead, the U.S. Senate, in the face of death and destruction, has just voted unanimously on a resolution to support Israel and what it’s doing.

The dialogue with the government has to continue; that’s the only way we are going to be able to achieve our goals. But the bottom line is that an iftar was not the appropriate place to have a significant discussion [of] these issues. We’re talking about a social event. As a community, we need to demand more. That’s why we called for a fruitful and meaningful dialogue with the administration. Let’s sit down with high-level individuals, have a discussion and have them hear what we’re trying to say. The White House iftar was a celebration and an opportunity to break bread, which we respect. But we can’t be breaking bread while our brothers and sisters overseas are being killed, while we have the surveillance happening, while we have the drone attacks going on in Iraq and Pakistan as well. That’s not something we wanted to be a part of."