Iftar at the White House: Trump’s recipe for reconciliation in Ramadan

Updated 30 May 2018
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Iftar at the White House: Trump’s recipe for reconciliation in Ramadan

  • Islamic Relief USA hosted a “grand iftar” on May 19 and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency hosted an iftar on May 25 for Gaza
  • “We were at war with terrorist organizations, not with Islam itself,” said James Norton, Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of homeland security

LONDON: Will he or won’t he? His predecessors did. The first was as long ago as 1805. But as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump is nothing if not a mold-breaker.

Which is why, in 2017, he became the first president for more than 20 years not to host an iftar during Ramadan or for Eid Al-Fitr.
This year, however, rumor has it that there will be an iftar gathering at the White House “in early June,” although official confirmation has so far proved hard to come by.
Relations between the new US administration and Muslims were hardly friendly during Ramadan last year. On the campaign trail in 2015, leading up to the election in November 2016, the president called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US.
Among the first acts of the new administration was an attempt to restrict entry into the US for citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a policy that is still being challenged and counter-challenged in the courts.
In 2016, CNN reported that the new administration had called for surveillance on mosques, saying: “We have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques. And we have to check other places. Because this is a problem that, if we don’t solve it, it’s going to eat our country alive, OK?”
Last year, Ramadan passed with barely a mention from the White House, apart from a statement, signed by Donald and Melania Trump and released at the end of the holy month, which said: “Muslims in the United States joined those around the world during the holy month of Ramadan to focus on acts of faith and charity. Now, as they commemorate Eid with family and friends, they carry on the tradition of helping neighbors and breaking bread with people from all walks of life.
“During this holiday, we are reminded of the importance of mercy, compassion, and goodwill. With Muslims around the world, the US renews our commitment to honor these values. Eid Mubarak.”
The statement did not appear on Trump’s social media feeds.
Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, was the first to hold an iftar when he delayed the start of a White House dinner on Dec. 9, 1805  until after sunset to accommodate his guest, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, the envoy from Tunis.
Hillary Clinton revived the practice in 1996, when she was First Lady, hosting a reception to mark Eid Al-Fitr which was attended by about 150 diplomats, legislators and Muslim community leaders. From 1999, the iftar became a fixture on the White House calendar, continued by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
President Bush even held one after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, insisting that it was more important than ever to show that the White House and the US were inclusive.
“We were at war with terrorist organizations, not with Islam itself,” said James Norton, Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of homeland security. “President Bush went out of his way to wrap his arms around the Muslim community.”
Even the Israelis have celebrated iftar. In 2011, the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, hosted an iftar dinner for the first time at his official residence in Washington. Guests broke the fast with dates, apricot juice and soup, and were then served a full halal meal after prayers.
So it is hardly surprising that Trump was widely condemned for not opening up his White House during Ramadan last year. Haroon Moghul, a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, called the decision “the beginning of his hatred of us, rhetoric unfolding into policy.”
Reuters reported that the fault lay with Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, who refused to host a reception, rejecting a recommendation by the office of religion and global affairs in his own State Department. When asked why there was no White House iftar, press secretary Sean Spicer — rarely short of an answer — simply replied: “I don’t know.”
Others had an answer, though. “The White House has abandoned iftar since the Trump administration is not interested,” said Jalil Khan, president of PAKPAC, a Pakistani-American organization which hosted an iftar on May 23 on Capitol Hill for members of Congress.
“Our political action committee took the lead and organized iftar for the second year in a row, and we’ve been stressing the importance of political activism by Pakistani Muslims living in the US.”
This year, however, there appears to be a change of heart. The first signs were the unmistakably warm — some would say conciliatory — greeting from the president at the beginning of Ramadan. It began, rather poetically: “With the rising of tonight’s moon, I send my greetings and best wishes to all Muslims” and referred to “the richness Muslims add to the religious tapestry of American life.”
On Saturday, Trump wished “all Muslims a joyful Ramadan” on Twitter. He recalled his visit to Saudi Arabia and promised that “America will always stand with our partners against terrorism and the ideology that fuels it. During this month of Ramadan let us be resolved to spare no measure so that we may ensure that future generations will be free of this scourge and able to worship and commune in peace.”


Former US President George W. Bush speaks at a Ramadan dinner. File photo

Former US President George W. Bush speaks at a Ramadan dinner. File photo

Though the official word from the White House is “no update,” Ray Mahmood, a prominent developer with long involvement in inter-faith diplomacy in Washington, said he had heard there was to be an iftar.
“I think they are very important to the Muslim community. At least they feel the president at the White House is doing this,” he said. The favored date appears to be June 6.
Meanwhile, semi-official events have come and gone. Islamic Relief USA hosted a “grand iftar” on
May 19 and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency hosted an iftar on May 25 for Gaza. The American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee is holding an “iftar banquet” on
May 31 in Alexandria, outside Washington DC. There are fund-raising iftars, corporate iftars and even an “open mic” iftar by the DC Muslim Writers Collective.
The UAE embassy also hosted an interfaith iftar last Thursday.
But an after-sunset event at the White House will top them all.


Britain and EU spar over Brexit as clock ticks down

Updated 13 min 53 sec ago

Britain and EU spar over Brexit as clock ticks down

  • Britain says a deal is possible
  • Ireland says not close to a deal

LONDON/BRUSSELS : Britain said on Friday a Brexit deal with the European Union could be reached at a summit next month, but EU member Ireland said the sides were far from agreement and London had not yet made serious proposals.
Three years after Britons voted to leave the EU, hopes of a breakthrough over the terms of its departure have been stoked in recent days by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the shape of a deal is emerging and European Commission President Juncker saying agreement is possible.
But diplomats say the two sides are split over London’s desire to remove the Irish border “backstop” from the divorce deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then work out a replacement in coming years.
The backstop is an insurance policy to keep the 500-km (300-mile) border between Ireland, which will remain in the EU, and the British province of Northern Ireland open after Brexit.
“We both want to see a deal,” British Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said after talks in Brussels with EU negotiator Michel Barnier. “The meeting overran, which signals we were getting into the detail.”
“There is a still a lot of work to do but there is a common purpose to secure a deal,” Barclay said, adding that Juncker and Johnson also both wanted a deal.
Leaving the EU would be Britain’s biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years and deprive the 28-nation bloc of one of its biggest economies. The EU has set a deadline for a deal to be reached by Oct. 31.
British parliament has rejected the deal May agreed with the EU. Johnson has said he wants to secure an amended deal at an EU summit on Oct. 17-18 but that Britain will leave the bloc if that is not possible. He will meet European Council Donald Tusk at the United Nations in New York next week.
Ireland is crucial to any Brexit solution. Unless the Irish border backstop is removed or amended, Johnson will not be able to win parliamentary approval but Ireland and the EU are unwilling to sign a deal without a solution to the border.
The EU fears a hard border could cause unrest in Northern Ireland and undermine the fragile peace provided by a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland, and the British security forces and pro-British “unionists.”
The Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed with the EU last November says the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid the return of border controls in Ireland.
The British government, worried the backstop will trap it in the EU’s orbit for years to come, wants to remove it and find a solution before December 2020, when a planned transition period ends.
The British pound fell from a two-month high after the Financial Times reported Johnson had told colleagues he did not expect to reach a full “legally operable” deal next month.
One EU official said Britain’s proposals are not enough to replace the backstop.
“As it stands, it is unacceptable,” the official said. “If they don’t really change their approach, we are at an impasse.”
The European Commission said in a memo that Britain’s plans “fall short of satisfying all the objectives” of finding an alternative to the backstop, Sky News reported.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the mood music had improved and that both sides wanted a deal but that they were not close to an agreement.
“There is certainly a lot of commentary now and some of it is spin I think, in the context of where we are,” he told the BBC. “We need to be honest with people and say that we’re not close to that deal right now.”
“Everybody needs a dose of reality here, there is still quite a wide gap between what the British government have been talking about in terms of the solutions that they are proposing, and I think what Ireland and the EU will be able to support.”
Britain said on Thursday it had shared documents with Brussels setting out ideas for a Brexit deal, but an EU diplomat described them as a “smokescreen” that would not prevent a disorderly exit on the Oct. 31 departure date.
Coveney, Ireland’s second most powerful politician, said a no-deal could lead to civil unrest.
“Trade across 300 road crossings that has created a normality and a peace that is settled on the island of Ireland for the last 20 years, that now faces significant disruption,” he said. “That is what we’re fighting for here.