I wrote the op-ed on why we should engage in a principled boycott of the White House and State Department Iftars in hope of beginning a productive conversation—and a call to action–among Muslims in this season of Ramadan.

In some ways, we have succeeded in having an important conversation, and it was gratifying to see sources like Aljazeera covering this debate.   In other ways, we have fallen short, with the typical name-calling questioning some of our qualifications to continue living in America (on one hand) and the typical name-calling of “House Muslims” (on the other).

It seems good to offer some preliminary thoughts on how to move beyond the current stalemate and reach for a more effective strategy.

President Obama hosting Ramadan iftar

President Obama hosting Ramadan iftar From White House.

1)   This is ultimately not about iftars.

This is not about whether or not we are seated at dinners in the corridors of power.  These dinners are about a photo-op, and a one-way conversation.   The iftars are not an occasion of airing out the grievances of the Muslim community, or to present our concerns with the Powers That Be.  They are, essentially, photo-ops.  They are staged events in which the American Empire portrays its hospitality to Muslims.   Even the designation of the event at the State Department (as opposed to other branches of the government) makes it clear that this is a political event in which Muslims are being acknowledged. Yet hospitality is not the same as citizenship. We do not need an America which is hospitable towards Muslims (or any other population). We demand what we are entitled to:  a vibrant democracy in which all citizens are afforded inalienable rights. Citizenship, not hospitality, is the starting point.

So we are calling for this boycott as part of an attempt to persuade all Americans that American should not be an Empire, but a vibrant democracy instead. Ultimately, a democracy and an Empire do not mix.  One has to give, and today it is the democracy part that is giving.  We as American citizens of all strive deserve to live in a robust democracy.   And that is what we are protesting for.

2)   It’s not about nice words, but righteous actions.

Make no mistakes, the words spoken by Secretary Kerry and President Obama are nice words.  Very nice words.  Secretary Kerry spoke eloquently about how no nation on earth is more welcoming to the Muslim umma than America, and even how striving for justice is analogous to jihad (using those very words).  Kerry said: “Nowhere else in the Ummah is there any equivalent concern for civil rights and freedom of faith.”  President Obama likewise has spoken beautifully.

But what we need are not beautiful words, but beautiful actions.  And the beautiful actions start with these:

*Thou shall not drop bombs from drones on innocent people.
*Thou shall not torture.
*Thou shall not keep human beings in indefinite detention.
*Thou shall not engage in racial, ethnic, and religious profiling.
*Thou shall not engage in illegal surveillance.

Words are nice.  As Muslims, we like words and have been known to engage in ornamenting our speech and our homes with beautiful words, with poetry, with recitation, and with calligraphy.  Even God is revealed through words.  But here and now, where God’s children are being droned and profiled and indefinitely held, we need more than words:  we need action.

This boycott and other actions are all directed towards righteous action.  If you cannot heal, feed, and shelter, at least do not drone, torture, imprison, and profile.  It’s really not much to ask.  It is simply to insist on the rights that are inherently ours to begin with.

3)   Boycotts are a proud American tradition.

Many of the folks who question the effectiveness of boycotts seem to be unaware of the power of boycotts in the American tradition and beyond.  The leaders of the American civil rights movement used boycotts.  The United Farm Workers engaged in boycotts. The Indian resistance movement of Gandhi against the British used boycotts. Those opposed to South African policies of Apartheid engaged in boycotts.

History is filled with examples of those who used the moral power of boycott to drive home about concerns that were just.  History is equally filled with examples of others who mocked them for engaging in “idealistic” and “ineffective” policies.

The best example for American Muslims in this context, I believe, is that of Martin Luther King. In fact, Dr. King talked about the power of protesting for rights in the context of the address to the Montgomery Improvement Association’s boycott meeting where several thousand people gathered in a Baptist church:

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. (Yes) [applause] That’s all.

And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. (Yeah) This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation, we couldn’t do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime, we couldn’t do this. (All right) But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.

Like Dr. King, American Muslims today lack the “political power” to bring an end to these unjust and evil policies.
But we can appeal to what Dr. King called “Soul Force”, an appeal to the conscience of America to live up to our own creed.

4)   We have to maintain the moral basis.

One of the key aspects of Islamic teachings is that the transformation of society has to be and remain linked to the transformation of our own hearts. This, after all, has been the observation of so many Muslim scholars and sages for why a revolution by itself is insufficient without also addressing the spiritual status of a people.

And we as Muslims are struggling today. Part of this shows in the way that we so quickly devolve in addressing one another, even in the month of Ramadan. It seems that we cannot go for two minutes—even in the sacred month of Ramadan—without calling one another “House Muslims” or “enemies of America who should go back where they came from.”

What we are called to do, instead, is to engage in what the best of the Prophetic tradition calls us to:  think of each other what is beautiful and lovely, and strive to make that a reality. Yes, there are many friends who choose to attend these iftars (a decision that I disagree with), but do so out of their own conscience, after weighing the pro’s and the con’s, and decided that it is a better decision to do so. We have to show courtesy and respect to one another, or none of us will have the moral basis whereby we can undertake meaningful transformation.

5)   We require coordination and negotiation—starting not with government agencies, but among Muslims.

Many of those who have participated in these dinners have talked about the power of networking in these events.  True enough.  But there is a difference between networking and solidarity. One can network—as is commonly done in the business community or academia—without in any way fundamentality standing up for a principle or resisting institutional paradigms of injustice.  What we need is not merely networking but solidarity based on principles of commitment to shared human rights and dignity.

Before the Montgomery Boycott could succeed in the 1960s, many African-American leaders engaged in important discussions and negotiations—among themselves.    We as Muslims need to do the same about putting pressure on the government to end unjust policies.   In order to do so, we need to have important conversations among important American Muslim leaders and community segments, from the African American community to Zaytuna and ISNA, ICNA, MPAC, CAIR, AL-Maghrib and other communities.  Yes, we need the leadership of our elders.  We need Shaykh Hamza, we need Imam Zaid, we need Dr. Umar, we need Dr. Sherman Jackson, we need Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl, we need Dr. Amina Wadud, we need Dr. Mattson, we need Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, we need all of us, we need to hear from all of us.   If different Muslim leaders decline to participate and both individually and collectively link their refusal to the issues at hand (drones, Guantanamo, profiling/surveillance), that would underscore the effectiveness of a boycott strategy.

6)   We do need to continue civic engagement and negotiation.
The goal is not to “get what we want”, but to engage in a twin practice:  first and foremost, to speak for those who are not in a position of speaking for themselves:  victims of American drone attacks, prisoners who should be released in Guantanamo Bay, and all victims of illegal surveillance and profiling. Second, and equally importantly, these actions are necessary for the redemption of the American experiment.  In some crucial ways, the American experiment is spiraling out of country, and has lost its basis. Let us not mince words here.  America today is an Empire. Republican and Democrat alike agree that the United States should spend more on its military than the next 12 countries combined, and have military bases on more than a hundred other countries.  No other country in the world behaves like this.

As both Americans and as Muslims, it is imperative for us to stand up, rise up, and speak out against this Empire.
It’s not that we are against America, for we ourselves are America.
We are against Empire, anywhere and everywhere.
We are against bombing, anywhere and everywhere.
We are against torture, anywhere and everywhere.
We are against injustice, no mattered by whom, and to whom.

We are for justice, no matter by whom, and to whom.
We are against violation of human rights, anywhere, and everywhere.
That is the true meaning of the Qur’anic mandate to stand up for justice and speak the truth, regardless of it is against our own selves, our parents, or own community.  (Qur’an 4:135)

Insha’allah a principled stance on behalf of the meek and “the least of these” among God’s creation will help us realize the sanctity of these holy nights of Ramadan—and beyond.

In the last thirty years, we as Muslims have had intense conversations about our multiple and overlapping identities as Americans and as Muslims. What this present conversation is about is something else: what kind of America we want to belong to:  an America that is an Empire, or a land of liberty and rights.   If it is the latter, words will not suffice.  We need to be participants in making that a reality.

13 Comments

  1. I hope this column includes Sufis too. :-) What the hell. Putting on my tuki. I can see progressive Muslims and friendly allies being a powerful force in bringing the U.S. back to a nation of constitutional law (something I thought that President Obama was an expert on when I voted for him.)

    The U.S. needs to be educated on the blowback drones create. The technology is beguiling to be sure, but all it does in the long run is create more world hatred for the United States.

    We need to keep reminding President Obama of his promise to close Gitmo. Keep the heat on.

    Thank you for your blog.

  2. I hope this column includes Sufis too. :-) What the hell. Putting on my kufi. I can see progressive Muslims and friendly allies being a powerful force in bringing the U.S. back to a nation of constitutional law (something I thought that President Obama was an expert on when I voted for him.)

    The U.S. needs to be educated on the blowback drones create. The technology is beguiling to be sure, but all it does in the long run is create more world hatred for the United States.

    We need to keep reminding President Obama of his promise to close Gitmo. Keep the heat on.

    Thank you for your blog.

  3. I second that. We do need to practice Islam in the main stream among our fellow Americans. No more words like “Islam means peace” even by Muslims, show with your actions so the word could come to that realization own their own. If you are a Muslim living outside Muslim countries, then you are an Ambassador of Islam.Please stop looking at the leadership. Each one of us has a responsibility towards Islam and if we live Islam then there would be no need to say “Islam means peace.” Get to know your neighbors, colleagues, class fellows, teachers, staff members and anyone you come in contact with. Every Muslim ca make a big difference. We will be able to build a non violent and peaceful movement. First we must realize our collective responsibilities.

  4. Michael Gatto

    Salam Dr Safi,

    In calling for an end to drone strikes and detention of enemy combatants, do you also believe we as a community should suggest alternative policies to our government? Or, do you believe our only responsibility is to demand and end to drones and detentions?

    I say this, because in the absence of drones, the few alternatives include manned air strikes, insertions of special force teams, or a full-scale ground invasion. If the USG is unwilling to commit to any of these three alternative policies and abandon the above tools because of our demands, then we will have abetted the safety of enemy combatants. This would take the pressure off these combatants and free them up to cause harm not only to us, but also to continue to attack civilians in bazars in Peshawar or bombing Shiites on Eid.

    In the absence of detaining capture enemy soldiers (despite being Non-state actors), then what do we do with them? It is unprecedented to give each foot soldier a trial; no country I am aware of does this nor has done this. What, then, shall we recommend our government to do?

    I can sign on against surveillance and profiling, but until we can suggest an alternative policy against jihadist militant groups, I am unwilling to assist the jihadists by acting as their proxies in the US to muzzle the few tools our government and military can use today.

    • Omid Safi

      salam Michael, it is Ramadan, so I will be kind.
      I find it vile, and frankly beneath a serious engagement, that no where in your response do you pause to consider that there are people, real life human beings, in the countries that the United States is droning. You fail to even acknowledge that there are real life civilians who continue to die under our drones. Children in the hundreds. Look up the numbers if you have not. Start with this: http://www.livingunderdrones.org Not one or two, a dozen or a hundred. Hundreds of children are dying. There is very partial list of some of their names here: http://omidsafi.religionnews.com/2013/04/17/boston-marathon/ We have droned more civilians than died in 9/11. And you have relegated them to the status of enemy combatants. Shame, shame on your characterization.
      You say that “in the absence of drones, the few alternatives” remain. No, sir. There are alternatives better and holier than having a drone bomb you from the sky or having a soldier shot you up close. That alternative is to pursue a life of dignity and justice. That alternative is peace, rooted in justice. I am not dismissing the dangers of the Taliban or similar groups. But you are simply kidding yourself if you do not confront the fact, the reality, that uncontrolled American aggression in forms like drones and others is precisely what is leading many to sign up for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. For one example, see here: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/yemeni_activist_farea_al_muslimi_urges
      You have already decided that the people in Guantanamo are “enemy soldiers.” How did you reach this conclusion? Did you try them in a court of law? If they are “enemy soldiers”, then why did the study of our own government decide that half of them should be released?

      You have already deemed civilians and children “enemy combatants” and all those indefinitely held “foot soldiers.” Shame, shame on those who fail to see the humanity of the weakest and most disenfranchised on Earth.

      You speak of surveillance and profiling and then jump again to “jihadist militant groups”. When the NYPD followed MSA groups in NY beyond state laws, where those kids “Jihadist militant groups”? When the US now illegally has access to records of hundreds of millions of Americans, are those “jihadist militant groups”?

      It is Ramadan, and I must be kind. I suggest you take some time to educate yourself on the real victims, and real policies, of what is being discussed here. Otherwise, you’re simply parroting right-wing propaganda.
      Ramadan Mubarak.
      Omid Safi

    • It is sad that you cannot imagine an option that does not inflict suffering on innocent people. This reminds me a passage from “Genealogies of Religion”: “in a tradition that connects pain with achievement, the inflicting of suffering on others is not in itself reprehensible.” Take a look at the book, it is a classic.

    • Salaam Micheal,

      I find your questions to be completely valid and I do not think you should be attacked for asking them even from those who disagree. We can not only be “against” something which is very easy, we must be “for” alternate solutions. As a Pakistani American, I am aware of the kind of indiscriminate death, destruction, and havoc the Taliban and other Terrorists groups reap onto the Muslim population daily : the killing of Shias, blowing up people in Masjids, markets, schools, even funerals, and specifically shooting girls like Malala in the head are not because any of these people were drone operators. Terrorists have got a very twisted and evil agenda to kill and are at war not only with “the West” but primarily with Pakistan itself. Any Muslim who does not abide by their twisted agenda are deemed worthy to kill. Over 48,000 innocent Pakistanis have been killed by Terrorists and more die daily in heart wrenching attacks in which terrorists aim to kill as many innocent people as possible.

      Of course we must review our policy as we do not want to kill or harm any innocent person, most especially any child. At the same time, we need solutions as Terrorists can not be allowed to roam freely to kill the masses. It can not be ignored that terrorists kill far more Muslims than they do anyone else. No one is a greater enemy to us. Our own Hadith refer to these khawarij/terrorist groups as the “dogs of hell” and very “worst of all creation.” “The Khawaarij are wicked people, and I don’t know of any people on earth more evil than they.”] http://islam44.blogspot.com/2011/07/dogs-of-hell-khawarij.html

      It is also time for Pakistan to be honest about its involvement (along with other Muslim countries.) Since it has been established that Pakistan has got an agreement with the USA on drones, and even requested them on occasion in their on going fight against terrorists, it is a much more complicated matter. (See here: http://tribune.com.pk/story/583288/new-security-policy-nawaz-sharif-postpones-apc/ )

      About Guantanamo, President Obama has publicly stated he wants to release the prisoners. So boycotting his invitation on that particular premise makes little sense. Perhaps more productive would be to work to support him in his stance, and work towards gaining the support of Congress (who would care little whether Muslims attend an iftar or boycott Congress.)

      Islam teaches us to engage with those with whom we disagree and to accept invitations. Shutting down doors will not do much good, it will just allow room for others to fill. Prophet Muhammad(saw) would not close doors on people who wished to sit down with him. Also causing disunity amongst the Ummah or name calling those who believe in working together(as many have done) is not beneficial to us in anyway. Those who would first wait for America to become “perfect” before attending an iftar (whom many would never be invited anyway!) would be waiting a very long time….!

  5. Salaams,

    Thanks for the excellent piece and for being one of those driving this discussion, which, like you say, is about far more than just these iftars.

    I can see that it would be an honor to be invited, and I know many have and will promote that they went to these (or similar events), but we also need to remember that this means the administration sees them as “safe”. Not safe in a “national security” way, or even politically safe (but both of these are definitely a factor), but safe in that they pose no threat to the administration’s agenda.

    That’s fine if the guests a foreign dignitary, an imam, or from an aid organization. But if they are supposed to be an advocacy organization fighting against the decay of civil liberties, then the fact that they were invited, to some degree, says that the government thinks of them as either disingenuous (not sincerely committed to their stated mission) or ineffective.

    What I find even more troubling is when a group then promotes that they were at such an event, often claiming that this is demonstration of their “access”. And as is pointed out, these aren’t dialogues where actual issues could be raised and addressed, but rather monologues from the government.

    If anyone claims to have access, I want to know what they’ve done with it. The seemingly continual increase in the administration’s attacks on civil liberties, privacy, and illegal war tells me that actual accomplishments of any “access” are minimal.

  6. Tahir U. Abdullah

    As Salaamu Alaikum,

    Prof. Sufi your article was insightful and it steers the conversation around Muslims engagement with the President, and by extension, other political officials in the right direction. Quick question: You mention that John Kerry made reference to how “how striving for justice is analogous to jihad (using those very words).” Then you provided a hyper link to the written transcript of the Ramadan Iftaar speech he gave at the State Dept. I’ve read the transcript twice and fail to see any analogy wherein “jihad” is made analogous to “justice”. Please clarify.

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