The State Department is hosting another one of its Ramadan iftars tonight. John Kerry is to host the dinner tonight.
These State Department iftars and the corresponding White House Iftars have become important occasions for the leaders of the Muslim community to gather and affirm their civic commitment to America, as well as for the American political establishment to emphasize that they (“we”) are not at war with Islam, and are a tolerant nation.
Every year when the list of those who are invited is announced, there is the predictable reaction: a combination of celebration, jealousy, and condemnation. Almost always, there are accurate observations that African-American Muslims are vastly under-represented, and that most of those invited have remained largely silent about the worst of American atrocities. Likewise, those who attend have defended their decision to participate.
A few years ago I received an awkward phone call about one of these iftars. This was shortly after the start of the 2003 war on Iraq.
State Department: “We would like to invite you to the State Department Iftar.”
Me: “Thank you for the invitation, I have to decline the invitation.”
State Department: “Why?”
Me: “Because you are bombing innocent people in Iraq.”
State Department: “I don’t appreciate your tone.”
Me: “I don’t appreciate you bombing innocent people.”
State Department: [Hangs up]
That was the last State Department iftar that I was invited to, and I do not regret that choice.
It was, I believe, the right thing to do to boycott that iftar in solidarity with the innocent people of Iraq.
If I have one regret it is that I did not share with the Muslim community more widely my reasons for having turned down that invitation.
As we get half-way during Ramadan of 2013, I have a humble proposal to all those who are invited to attend State Department iftar and the White House iftar this year. My suggestion is simple:
We should, all of us, collectively, politely, and firmly, decline the State Department Ramadan and White House Iftars until the following three measures are taken:
1) The United States immediately abandons the policy of extra-judicial drone attacks in all countries.
2) The United States immediately releases the political prisoners who have been cleared for release at Guantanamo Bay
3) The United States immediately abandons the policy of profiling and surveillance based on race, ethnicity, and religion.
The reason for a boycott is simple: These policies are an insult to the highest values we as Americans cherish, and they violate the civil liberties and human rights of Muslims in this country and around the world. These boycotts are not simply an exercise in rejection, but an appeal to conscience of all of us to be better than we are right now.
For such a policy to be effective, it is not simply sufficient to decline an offer. Each and every leader who’s invited has to publicly declare why they are not attending. Otherwise the organizers will simply move down their list and find others to take their place.
I should mention that disagreement among scholars and leaders is always seen in Islam as a sign of mercy from God. I do not intend to cast any aspersion upon the character of those who do decide to attend. Whether they choose to do so or not is their own business, something between their own conscience and God. If they choose to attend, I have no doubt that they have weighed it in their own conscience and decided that the collective communal benefit of attending outweighs the negatives. That is their business.
But I believe that the time has come for us to take a risk in order to do what is right: stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves because they have been droned, because they are unjustly imprisoned, and because they are racially profiled.
The time has come, and that time is now.
Should the United States cease from these policies that are unjust and immoral, all of us would be honored to attend and celebrate Ramadan under the auspices of the State Department and the White House.