For some Muslims, politicized iftars undermine Ramadan’s message

UMAA, one of the top Shia Muslim organizations in the United States, held its first Grand Iftar in Washington DC, with more than 100 attendees.
UMAA, one of the top Shia Muslim organizations in the United States, held its first Grand Iftar in Washington DC, with more than 100 attendees.

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2014 —As per usual, political elites throughout Washington DC (on both sides of the aisle), continue to host prestigious Ramadhan Iftar dinners during Islam’s holy month of fasting.

This year, however, some of the iftars have become politically charged.

The White House invited controversy this year, when participants felt the program was insensitive to the crisis in Palestine.

Other issues, such as the recently revealed spying of high profile Muslims in the United States, were left unmentioned. The news world erupted with stories both lambasting the iftar and defending it. The 2014 Congressional Iftar, hosted by the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association (CMSA), went off without a hitch, however organizers intentionally pursued a low profile for the event.

Once boasting 1,000 attendees, this year’s event was a much more sober event, with less than two hundred participants. CMSA has taken a low profile after being attacked by anti-Islam media groups. The State Department cancelled its iftar this year, citing Secretary Kerry’s focus on resolving Palestine (A post Ramadhan “Eid” dinner is being planned).

On the bright side, however, this year saw the first ever iftar in Washington DC held by a Shia Muslim organization. The Universal Muslim Association of America (UMAA) held its “Grand Iftar “at its national headquarters, drawing more than a hundred attendees, including staff from the White House, State Department, and a plethora of other federal agencies.

Elsewhere in DC, USAID held a well-regarded iftar, devoting special attention to the plight of schoolgirls in the Muslim world. The tradition of government held iftars dates back to 1805, where then President Thomas Jefferson invited Muslim delegates from Tunisia to the White House for an Iftar dinner. Nearly two hundred years later the tradition was revived, when the White House started holding Iftar dinners hosted by President Clinton, President Bush, and President Obama.

Far from a unique event in the nation’s capital, Iftar events are held throughout the city.

Last year, the Pentagon held its fifteenth annual Iftar and the State Department continued its annual dinner dating back to 1996. During the month of Ramadhan, Muslims are required to avoid any food or drink (including water and medicine), from dawn until sunset. At sunset, Muslims may make conclude their fast with a meal called Iftar.

More than a month dedicated to restricting food, Ramadhan is intended to be a time of spiritual and social advancement, as discussed in BBC’s “Why Ramadan brings us closer together” Washington DC based embassies from countries in the Middle East or with significant Muslim populations also hold extravagant Iftar celebrations, and invitations to the grand events are highly sought after. Such events occur across the country, and are often effective tools for politicians to reach out to Muslim constituents.

New York State Senator Eric Adams for example, attended the Arab Muslim American Foundation’s 16th Annual Iftar last year and Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s 2013 Iftar sold out days before the event itself.

Iftar dinners apparently serve as a bipartisan event, with high profile Republican and Democratic Governors regularly hosting the events. In 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, co-hosted an Iftar with dozens of other state legislators. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is set to host his seventh annual Ramadhan Iftar this year.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also a Republican, linked his own 2012 Iftar to the NYPD spying scandal, a program he vehemently opposes. “With the appearance of the crescent moon, Muslim families across the nation mark the beginning of Ramadan. As millions of Americans participate in this holy month of fasting, they will grow in their faith and strengthen the bonds within their families. … We recognize our Muslim American communities this month and are especially mindful of the many ways they enrich our country and culture with their faith, customs and traditions. We wish all who are fasting a blessed Ramadan” said Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus and Co-Chairman Sharon Day in a released statement.

UMAA Advocacy Director Ali Tehrani says “It’s great to see that politicians from both sides of the aisle can come together to host these types of events. That so many communities across the country are welcoming Muslims with these Iftar dinners is a testimony to the American dream.” Iftar dinners have also been used as an interfaith tool, with the noted “Iftar in a Synagogue” series, boasting an attendance of nine hundred at its annual program.

In Missouri last year, local Churches came together to support the Muslim community with an Iftar dinner after a mysterious fire at the Joplin Mosque construction site. The United States uses Iftar receptions as a diplomatic tool around the world, with American embassies hosting their on Iftar functions in countries as Singapore and others.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is affiliated with UMAA.

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