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.  

President Obama addressing White House iftar gathering

President Obama addressing White House iftar gathering from White House.

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.


  1. Khadija Anderson

    Right on. Boycott the White House for everything because the government will never “cease from these policies that are unjust and immoral”.

  2. Thank you for advocating the truth! My only reservation with this article is the making of accomodations for those who decide to go to them. Either we should go or we shouldn’t go, according to the principles of Islam. And like you say, we shouldn’t. There should be differences of opinion on application of principles, not on principles themselves.

  3. Yes, boycott these iftars. Boycott the very events that provide a forum to air your grievances with the American government. Folding your arms and sitting back until you get what you want is not the way to cause change. Actually engaging in discussion will accomplish your goals. Also, your third demand of the American government is a problem that not only Muslim Americans face. African Americans have been racially profiled for nearly 200 years, you don’t see the NAACP refuse to go to White House invitations. The political process is not all or nothing and when you take the all or nothing stance, nobody wins, especially the people. Just look at our Congress. You being someone that is an influential thinker should not be sitting back and waiting for the change to happen. You should be influencing the government to make these changes.

    • Omid Safi

      salam Umair. I think you are conflating two separate issues: one is the general principle of civic engagement, including airing out grievances. I am in support of that. The second is that of symbolic iftar events which are not occasions for negotiation or airing out grievances, but merely perpetuate an image that is not at the moment corresponding to reality. So I am talking about a principled and reasoned boycott of these second events to achieve their goal.
      And as far as the NAACP and the African-American organizations, I suggest looking back at the example of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus boycott and other boycotts to achieve their aim. Boycotts in the context of conscience-raising endeavors as are American as it gets.
      May God bless you, omid safi

      • Well said, totally agree with you hosting Iftar parties in an effort to send a message of peace and compassion is misleading and its an effort on the part of the united states to come across as reasonable and friendly. Its about time they stop trying to fool us with these gimmicks. They need to stop the killings of Muslims in iraq and Afghanistan, droning the the living day lights out of innocent civilians. Going to such parties and acting as if nothing is wrong and being all diplomatic about it is not the way forward when innocents are being killed in the name of liberation.

    • Lumumba K. Shakur

      As salamu `alaykum, If we are talking celebratory invitations like is being discussed here, perhaps the NAACP should have. You do not think it may be a bit short-sighted for you to accuse our brother and distinguished professor of “sitting back and waiting for change” in response to an article advocating that the entire American Muslim community boycott such events as a way of changing the public discourse? And I do not agree that Omid Safi is arguing for an all-or-nothing-stance, but if you look at Congress, the all-or-nothing-stance seems to be working perfectly fine for the Republicans. The White House does not send invitations to critics of the administration (unless they have a lobbying firm following behind them) and such iftars are not forums to air grievances with the government. They are religious festivities, not political caucuses.

  4. No one in Iraq tried to bomb innocents. In fact, we tried very hard NOT to do that. War is a bad business, and we who go to the fore sometimes regret our inability to be precise. You must be aware, though, that millions of Iraqis are very happy to be free of the oppression of Saddam and his Baath party. I know many of them. I feel that your comments were disparaging toward those of us, Americans, who risked (or gave) our lives to free the Iraqi people from tyranny. It is easy to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude from a position of safety. Do not be so quick to judge those who have given so much (or all) to relieve others (Muslims, incidentally) from a brutal dictator.

    • Aw, cute. You actually believe that as well.
      It’s a shame, you didn’t actually fight, die, get PTSD, Murder thousands of civilians for the sake of overthrowing a dictator you yourselves installed. You did it to give KBR, BECHTEL and Halliburton obscene record profits. That makes you stupido.

    • Youssef El Ashmawi

      With all due respect, I do not think that Professor Safi meant to disparage the individual soldier. That’s why his comments were directed at the State Department and the White House, in other words the leaders that sent you men and women over there on false pretenses. I’m sorry to have to tell you that our leaders did not seem to care about the Iraqi people at all. It was all about geopolitics and control of oil resources. And making money for American corporations such as Halliburton and KBR was not a minor factor either. In closing, please remember that God knows what was in your heart and what was in the hearts of our leaders. And His opinion is the only one that really matters.

    • Ali, Tom, I have never seen before such vile bigotry based upon an honest attempt to dialogue. Yes, I follow the Prophet (pbuh). I am not proud to call such as you my brothers.

  5. Major national security policies are not changed in this country instantaneously according to how low or high the attendance at iftaar dinners are. Islam tells us to engage with those with whom there may be disagreements (as well as accept invitations). The only thing such boycotts would do is marginalize our communities further and reverse much of the progress being made. President Obama already wants to release the Guantanamo Prisoners…is avoiding iftar dinners going to bully Congress into acting on what the President already has publicly called for?

    • Lumumba K. Shakur

      Islam also tells us to shun the gates of the rulers and so the relative benefits of participating in such festivities must be weighed accordingly. Given the civic plight of Muslims in America (mentioning nothing of the implications of anti-“terrorism” policies for the wider public), “progress” does not seem to be the proper term and as is clear from the comments, many people agree with Omid Safi’s position. I find it hard to believe that Muslim communities will be further marginalized by refusing to celebrate a purely symbolic affair for principled reasons that many of our fellow Americans also agree with.

      Obama and his relationship to Congress is an entirely different story and perhaps this is not the correct format to discuss such things, but let us not allow the partisan politics in Washington, D.C. to blind us to the fact that it is the Obama’s Justice Department that is calling the shots at Gitmo and indefinite detention remains its official policy. In terms of civil liberties, Obama is demonstrably worse than Bush.

      The closing of Guantanamo Bay is similarly only a symbolic gesture when the proposed alternative is simply to move the detainees to different prison complexes for their indefinite detentions to be resumed away from the public eye in order for the bad publicity to go away. Obama’s call for Gitmo to be closed has never been a humanitarian gesture, only a foreign policy calculation. As such, a national boycott of iftar dinners is precisely what needs to be done so that the American public understands that we are not so eager to become a secularized religious body that we place a meaningless fraternity over the concerns of our brethren who have been victims of an unjust justice system.

  6. Mansur Al-Hallaj

    Mr. Omaid Safi ,

    Your thoughts and ideas reflect exactly what’s wrong with Muslims . Modern academia has failed to turn you into an intellectual in a true sense. Have you ever heard the term “Cognitive Dissonance ” ? or Self deception or hallucinations ?

    Fine , let’s assume for the argument’s sake that all your premises are valid and not irrational. The first thing any so called “Muslim” with this kind of of logic and mindset should do .

    1-) Refuse to visit Mecca and Medina till the Saudi Regime stops funding these dirty Salafi factories/Madrassas around the globe. My beloved country Pakistan has been a victim of Saudi imperialism which has led to thousands & thousands of innocent deaths nothing compared to the drones

    2) In the holy month of Ramadan , boyocott everything that has been imported from these regimes Iran , Saudia Arabia. Don’t buy the “holy” Dates from these countries .

    3) Always a good thumb of rule , Charity begins at home so If you wanna take the liberty to have a leftist outlook under your misleading “Islamic umbrella” please have a similar approach towards your own religion and values.

    How about inviting few homesexuals to have Iftar with you in the masjid ? How about doing some charity work to heal the wounds of 911 victims ?
    How about thanking the people of America for the kind words they have expressed for Malala Yousafzai.

    You can fool the Western audience with your dishonest intellectualism but can’t fool the people who are born and raised in the realities that you teach about without indulging in them yourself.

    Mansur Al-Hallaj

  7. It seems that our community still has not mature enough to realize it is not about a prestigious Iftar dinner, Professor Omid Safi is encouraging is to act collectively for the betterment of all Muslims and all human beings to be treated equally with Justice. Our president promised to close Guantanamo bay among other things. When your resources are limited then you make a decision to boycott the most important event organized by White House and State Department to make the biggest head lines. That is one way to get the attention Muslim and minority issues deserve. I believe it is a movement that needs to happen, question is are we ready for it? I hope soon. My beloved Late father taught me many things, one of them, he said “always let others know how you feel but you never have to be rude.” This golden nugget has served me very well and allows me to be honest with politeness. The time has come to put aside individual desires for the betterment of Muslim community’s collective needs.

    I do not understand why people compare America with other corrupt governments? I do not believe they claim to be the champions of human rights but we do. I love America and that is why I try so hard to fight for freedom, equality, social justice, civil liberties, humane immigration reform and peace. Here we can do it. I urge all of you to make America truly your country and try to fix what is broken.

    You should visit our website to see what American Muslim Voice does to engage with fellow Americans.

  8. I kinda agree with the sentiment behind the article, but some things seem a bit odd to me. “I don’t appreciate your tone.” Really? An official of the US State Department replied to you in that manner?

    I would attend the event if invited. I would love an invite. I would attend, and get the closest seat to the POTUS as possible. I would talk to him about backward orientation regarding Palestine, Detroit, and the Trayvon Martin murder. I still look forward to an opportunity when I can speak truth to power.

  9. Absolutely…Eating with mass murderers would tantamount to be sitting with Dajjal! Boycott is the humblest way to impress upon the tyranny of the United States that enough is enough!!!….whether it works or not? you don’t sit with fascist on the same tables..United States has gone from bad to worse and has now over the last 13 years has assumed the role of Hitler Germany and I have no hesitation to brand them as such. Mansur Al-Hallaj…I smell rot from your response! How dare you call yourself a Muslim with such low opinion of the time and era we live!

  10. I would boycott just because there’s probably nothing halal to eat anyways. I don’t consider breaking my fast with Lean Cuisine at the White House very satisfying

  11. These leaders have bought our leaders and they are killing innocents very systematically. I don’t think Saddam is killed I don’t think Osama bin laden is killed. They created these characters to reach our soils and destroy us to get our resources. Bravo and they did achieve their goals. All these leaders are a part of it. Movie of prophet phuh was their idea to boil every Muslims blood and get a reaction out of us and they did get a major reaction. What they care about our religions and our celebrations.
    One American soldier dies they drone the whole country.
    On the other hand you are living in their country, paying taxes, using their resources and please admit it that you are enjoying your life.
    Talking is easy. Do something real for your country. At least you are not there where your people are being droned.

    Sorry drifted a bit away from the topic.

  12. Hahahaaa Mansur you are talking about Malala please don’t even go their she’s one if their puppets. But Pakistan is definitely getting positive attention. Maybe Americans leaders are trying to brush some of their dirty deals off of their shoulders. Maybe the way to say SORRY when they droned Pakistani areas.

    You sound like a brainwashed ABCD

  13. I appreciate your straight forwardness and respect your decision. However, I believe we can’t pick and choose to affirm the call of conscience. Does anyone decline to pay tax when buy anything? Even though we knw where tax money is used. Would anyone boycott living here in the US? Why not boycott everything? I think it is about time we must learn not to have double standards. In my opinion declining invitation in a rude way wouldn’t get the point across.

    • Lumumba K. Shakur

      Boycotting living in the United States presumes that some of us are not originally from here and from a geopolitical perspective, that it is largely beside the point. In regard to taxes, they are compulsory and refusing to pay taxes would either land you in jail for tax evasion or hungry, homeless and naked. And if we are speaking reality, most tax money goes towards paying the interest on the national debt, and in addition to military endeavors, it also funds social welfare, public education and government salaries. Things are rarely black-and-white. Along those lines, in criticism of a boycott intended on sparking a community-wide conversation with the nation, you propose that a complete disengagement is the only other viable alternative. What Omid Safi is calling for is not a double standard, but what you are proposing is that we either shut up and do not complain or leave.There has to be another way… Let us not forget, as has been stated repeatedly, that we are essentially talking about a photo op so that the Obama Administration can say “See, Muslim Americans support us, we have pictorial proof” and the attendees can say, “Look! I got to eat with the President!” If we have reached a point in our engagement that speaking truth to power is considered rude, we still have a long way to go as a community.

  14. Based on a brief talk I heard you give at AAR a few years ago (as well as the admiration of my husband) you are a wonderful speaker, really funny and a solid scholar. To me it makes much more sense to use this skills in the White House to present alternatives to State Dept. officials. There is no reason that the White House iftars should not be a place to discuss serious issues or at least to form links that can be followed up with informative meetings.

    • Omid Safi

      salam Najwa, thank you so much for the very kind words. Alas, these iftars are not really public policy or even discussion formats, merely photo ops. So I say let’s use these publicity occasions to shed some light on some of the vile policies of our own government and strive to be better than we are today.

  15. Ben, I am sorry you have been so brainwashed by lies. War is bad business, eh? When you drop bombs and kill thousands of innocent people, it is simply written of as “bad business”, and “collateral damage”. But then again, its only American lives that count. What do a bunch of Iraqi lives mean? And for the record, the US did not give a darn about liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, so please dont even go down that road. If they cared so much, then tell me, why did they support him for so many years before, while he was still a brutal dictator?

  16. Everyone judges based on their standard of what will make them/their country look more righteous than the others they desire to criticize. How sad. And dishonest. It leads to self entrapment.
    Jesus said it well: “Take the Log out of your eye before you try to remove the splinter from your friend’s…”
    Isaiah said it well too: “…there’s none righteous, no, not one…”
    We’re all in trouble, bad trouble.
    The equal rights movement and Islam share more differences than similarities…
    The beliefs of Martin Luther King (misinterpreted or not) never resulted in the death of millions. The US is far from innocent. But if its as bad as you say, why are so many still trying to come here?
    I wish for all of you only the best and God’s peace that only He gives.

  17. What do you say of the leaders on both sides in Syria, the leaders and demonstrators in Turkey, the military leaders and Brotherhood in Egypt, the Sunni and Shia leaders in Iraq? (It is good to be in a country where we are able to protest and not have anyone trying to kill you. To speak about abuses, discrimination without fear of jail.) Drone strikes in Pakistan – who can justify a single innocent person being killed? Suicide bombers in mosques and markets in country after country – Who promotes these as a tribute to Allah (bphn)? What is the nature of man that we kill and maim one-another and even ourselves and call that virtue. Where will we find an answer that will change human nature?

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  1. […] First, the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren invited Muslim leaders to a diplomatic Iftar dinner last week and Imam Antepli of Duke University wondered aloud if the event was meaningful. And then the Obama administration invited Muslim leaders to the White House Iftar dinner and Omid Saifi, the Islamic studies professor from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, called to b… […]

  2. […] First, the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren invited Muslim leaders to a diplomatic Iftar dinner last week and Imam Antepli of Duke University wondered aloud if the event was meaningful. And then the Obama administration invited Muslim leaders to the White House Iftar dinner and Omid Safi, the Islamic studies professor from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, called to boycott it. […]

  3. […] First, the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren invited Muslim leaders to a diplomatic Iftardinner last week and Imam Antepli of Duke University wondered aloud if the event was meaningful. And then the Obama administration invited Muslim leaders to the White House Iftar dinner and Omid Saifi, the Islamic studies professor from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, called to b… […]

  4. […] First, the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren invited Muslim leaders to a diplomatic Iftar dinner last week and Imam Antepli of Duke University wondered aloud if the event was meaningful. And then the Obama administration invited Muslim leaders to the White House Iftar dinner and Omid Saifi, the Islamic studies professor from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, called to b… […]

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