D.C.'s Iftar Season
by Stephen Schwartz
Iftar is a ritual observed by Muslims at the end of the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. Muslims break the fast at sundown--a time prescribed by local clerics, based on astronomical calculations--by drinking water and eating dates. Families, other social groups, and mosques then hold elaborate meals, and in Muslim countries, restaurants may put out tables and serve food to the public.
President George W. Bush inaugurated the practice of White House iftar dinners. During his tenure in office, Muslim extremists occasionally called for a boycott of his invitations. Iftar events were also held on the Hill, and provoked debate because of the participation of the radical Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
This year's Washington iftar events included one at the White House on September 1. An official list of "some of the expected attendees" included cabinet members, Christian and Jewish leaders, as well as a long Muslim roster. In the latter, which included diplomats from Muslim lands and countries with large Muslim communities, only two American Muslim names were well-known and controversial: Ingrid Mattson, president of the fundamentalist-oriented Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and Imam Yahya Hendy of Georgetown University.
The Obama administration had already favored Mattson with an opportunity to serve as Islam's representative during the Inauguration ceremony this year. As shown in this 2003 court document, Hendy appeared as a witness in the trial of Sami Al-Arian, who pled guilty to support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the U.S.
Another iftar was announced by the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association for September 9 on Capitol Hill, with the support of diplomats from Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Oman. And thirdly, the Department of Agriculture was set to hold its first iftar. So far, nothing much to think about. Official interfaith gestures to Muslims, even with a tilt toward fundamentalists, are now an established part of the political landscape.
But then comes news that a Pentagon iftar--not the first associated with Defense Department headquarters--was held on September 4, with the support of the Pentagon Chaplain's Office, and featured three guest speakers. The first and third were women, Farah Pandith and Dalia Mogahed. Pandith has been appointed Special Representative to Muslim Communities, a new post created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. An Indian-born Muslim, Pandith formerly worked for the National Security Council and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Mogahed, senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, is also now inside the presidential tent, since she was named to Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mogahed has partnered with Georgetown's Professor John L. Esposito, a dedicated defender of Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi cult, in producing a Gallup volume with the modest title, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.
A special filling in the Pentagon sandwich was provided by James Zogby of the Arab American Institute. Zogby is not a Muslim, but an Arab American Christian. He published remarks on the iftar, available here. While Christians including President Bush had addressed iftar celebrations, Zogby's comments were curious. Ramadan and iftar events are supposed to be religious in nature, while extolling community welfare. Bush's 2008 comments at the event dwelt on the contributions of American Muslims to technological innovation. In 2007, Bush spoke of faith and its comforts, family, and religious freedom, while also condemning radical Islam. This year, Obama praised Muslims for adherence to common principles of justice and progress. Bush and Obama, as the nation's chief executives, could be expected to offer Christian greetings to a Muslim audience, especially since they hosted the gatherings.
Zogby is different. He is an indefatigable critic of Israel, who has convinced many observers that his Institute is non-religious. He is also a strident defender of Saudi Arabia. Regarding the Pentagon iftar, he defined American Muslim interests in an extremely broad way, crowing over the success of Muslims, and especially Arab Americans, in our political system, and extravagantly praising the governmental recognition of a Muslim tradition.
He began his statement with an obvious inaccuracy: "When I first came to this city, over 30 years ago, there were no Iftars, nor was there any formal recognition of Ramadan or the Eids [two annual Muslim holidays] by anyone, anywhere." Here Zogby betrayed his ignorance of Muslim life, for if it is true that official recognition of these practices were lacking, such observances were common in embassies, mosques, and private homes. Zogby continued, "At this point, there are Iftars all over this city--the White House, State Department, Congress, National Security Agency, and more." He ended with boasts of his political exploits in Dearborn, Mich., in boosting the fortunes of its large Arab population.
One may conclude that while America is committed to understanding Islam, and is presently sacrificing blood and treasure to help Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan gain freedom and prosperity, it can do little in that direction with the help of demagogues like James Zogby, to say nothing of Mattson, Hendy, or Mogahed, especially at official events.