The Muslim holy month of Ramadan falls at a fraught time for American Muslims this year.
The fast started weeks ago — before a U.S. citizen born to Afghani immigrants committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the Pulse gay club in Orlando, and before Donald Trump reacted to that tragedy by repeating his proposal to ban Muslim visitors to the United States and blaming Muslims for failing to stop the attack. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is preparing to welcome Muslim Americans to the White House to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the fast, for the final time.
This year’s White House Ramadan celebration will mark the 20th anniversary of a tradition first adopted by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 and continued each year by every president since, whether Republican or Democrat. The first documented White House Iftar occurred more than 200 years ago, when President Thomas Jefferson hosted the Tunisian envoy Sidi Slimane Mhlmyla on Dec. 9, 1805, to discuss the issue of piracy in the Mediterranean Sea; informed by the envoy of his ongoing Ramadan fast, Jefferson ordered food service to be rescheduled to commence exactly at sunset so as to comply with Islamic custom.
The White House Iftar has become the country’s most important public gathering of Muslim and non-Muslim voices, used by three presidents to enhance interfaith unity and mutual understanding. In the wake of last weekend’s atrocity in Orlando, the celebration is more important than ever to help Americans understand the true, peaceful face of Islam.
But it’s hard to imagine that a President Trump would continue the tradition — and for that matter, it’s hard to think of any Muslims who would agree to attend it if he did. If Trump wins the election this November, could this be the final White House Iftar for years to come?
About 3.3 million Muslims are estimated to live in the United States, worshipping at some 2,500 mosques spread across all 50 states. Around 1 million Muslim-Americans are registered to vote, exerting a strong influence in swing states such as Michigan, Ohio and Virginia.
None of that has stopped Trump from deploying rhetoric aimed at my faith that is, at best, deeply unsettling. So far, Trump has pledged to seriously consider shutting down mosques and putting others under surveillance; promised to issue Muslims special ID cards; discussed creating a federal database to track and monitor Muslims residing in the United States; and, of course, ban all Muslims from entering the country.
As news of the Orlando attack broke, Trump reacted with his most dangerous outburst yet, congratulating himself on Twitter for getting "Islamic terror right" and repeating his call to ban Muslims from the United States even though the killer was a native-born American citizen with no known connections to foreign extremists. On Monday, he expanded the prohibition to all countries with a history of perpetrating violence against the United States and its allies - a categorization that includes nearly the entire world. Without citing any evidence, Trump essentially accused Muslim Americans of treason, alleging that they routinely conspire with extremists to harm the nation, hiding would-be terrorists from the authorities and obstructing federal anti-terror investigations. Trump appeared to blame President Obama and his "ulterior motives" for the massacre, and suggested anyone who opposes his ban cannot be a friend to the gay community. He reserved his most vicious xenophobia for the shooter’s parents, contending that "the bottom line is the only reason the killer was in America in the first place is because we allowed his family to come here."
Unfortunately, Trump does seem to be speaking for significant numbers of Americans. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in May was almost evenly divided on his proposed Muslim ban, with 43 percent of respondents for it, 50 percent against and 7 percent undecided. And clearly, Trump’s xenophobic rants have harmed Muslims and their standing in America. For example, a recent report published by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding has shown a marked increase in violence against Muslims in the United States coinciding with the 2016 campaign, as did a similar study using FBI data.
That is exactly what makes the White House Iftar celebrations valuable. In a statement commemorating the start of Ramadan 2016, President Obama made that point: "As Muslim Americans celebrate the holy month, I am reminded that we are one American family. I stand firmly with Muslim American communities in rejection of the voices that seek to divide us or limit our religious freedoms or civil rights. I stand committed to safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans no matter their religion or appearance."
As Muslim-American and immigrant myself, I found Obama’s remarks moving. Having attended several State Department Iftars, I know first-hand just how valuable and constructive official U.S. government overtures to Muslims at home and abroad are. Such measures must remain a key component of U.S. foreign policy going forward. As I approach my third decade in this country - and especially now, in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre - I am convinced that that there is no place for false divisions between ethnicities and faiths in my adopted country. My young children are now and forever must be considered equal in rights, dignity and under the law, no matter who occupies the White House.
Trump, if we are to take him at his word, clearly believes otherwise. The horror in Orlando underscores that the Islamic State seeks - and already views itself as engaged in - perpetual war with the United States and its values, as part of its perversions of my faith’s teachings. Trump, should he be elected president, has promised to give the despicable terrorist organization exactly what they want. This Ramadan, we must all hope he never has the chance.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is Washington bureau chief for Al-Araby Television Network and a columnist for Al-Shorouk, an Egyptian daily newspaper.