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Monday, 05 August 2013 11:41

Better Than a Boycott: Muslim Dialogue at the 2013 White House Iftar

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Earlier in the month, as I was chugging through my day at a hundred miles an hour, multi-tasking more than the latest Android cell phone, I was jolted by a sudden thought: “I wonder if I will be invited to the White House iftar this year?” Within two days, an official landed in my inbox.

Leading up to the iftar, the evening meal that breaks a day of fasting for Muslims during the month of Ramadan, there was a campaign by my fellow co-religionists to boycott the event in order “to represent a united Muslim front” in protest of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In my opinion, if such an initiative was sincere, a personal phone call or an email to the heads of American Muslim organizations would have been the best modus operandi, thereby allowing the possibility for a unified position on the issue. Instead, what transpired was public name calling of those who chose to attend. This public righteousness was offensive on so many levels.

Instead of focusing on the negative energy that surrounded the annual dinner, attended by the President of the United States himself, I’d like to shift that narrative and focus on the positive energy that characterized the dinner and those of us who attended.

First, I am honored to have been invited not only to the iftar but also to a private policy briefing with advisors of the administration, and attended by a small group of members of the Muslim community. As a founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values it was a validation of the work MPV has accomplished — a recognition of the relevance of our grassroots community nationally and internationally, and the progressive interpretation of Islam we advocate.

But I was also honored to be in the company of the many young Muslim entrepreneurs who were handpicked and recognized by this administration for their success. The President sat with them at dinner, not with the Ambassadors or other members of Congress. Exchanging notes after the iftar with some of the entrepreneurs, they were floored by how incredibly down to earth the President was, how he totally understood the nuances of their individual stories, and how he listened to each one of them attentively and how honest he was in sharing his personal family stories.

My table was hosted by National Security Advisor Ms. Susan Rice, who I was seated next to, and on my other side was a White House Deputy Assistant. Our table was an engaging lot with the Cameroon, Djibouti and Egyptian Ambassadors, Michigan legislature Ms. Rashida Tlaib, State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Imam Majid, President of the Islamic Society of North America.

Yes, indeed — Ms. Rice was flanked by me, the head of a progressive Muslim movement on one side, and Imam Majid, head of a rather conservative organization on the other. Someone must have thought about this!

Besides being engaged with the others at the table I spent a lot of time in conversation with Ms. Rice and Imam Majid. I’ll share one conversation.Imam Majid proceeded to tell Ms. Rice about his efforts in countering anti-Semitism within the Muslim community by inviting Imams and others to trips to Auschwitz. I commended his efforts and how important this initiative is, and proceeded to tease him.

Here’s the dialogue:

Ani: This is such a great initiative but unfortunately I only see photos of male imams at these trips. I am an imam, how come I don’t get invited?

Ms. Rice: You’re an imam!?

Ani: Yes, but with a small ‘i’. I lead prayer occasionally and it’s not like Christianity which requires an ordination formality. At MPV we encourage everyone to lead prayer, straight men, women, and LGBTs.

Imam Majid: Yes, now that I have your contact information, I will invite you for the next trip.

See what happens when you sit at the table?

So go ahead, naysayers! Do all the boycotting, do all the self-segregating exercises you want. That just leaves more room at the table for folks who want dialogue. And frankly, a dialogue with Imam Majid in a setting that insisted on respectability and dignity was a perfect environment for two very different representatives of Islam to come to talk. Of course having Ms. Susan Rice, an experienced diplomat, between us helped!

Wishing all the Muslim folks out there a very Happy Eid! Click here to listen to my song titled “Happy Eid”.

By Ani Zonneveld, Aslan Media Columnist
*Photo courtesy of the author

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+1 # Hassan 2013-08-06 01:36
It's good to read! i concur that dialogue is important! no boycotting in such things may be help always! we should move to peaceful coexistence and that happens with dialogues!
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+1 # Leila LAbate 2013-08-07 13:30
Were touchy and devastating subjects like drone -bombing, economic sanctions on Syria and Iran, invading Libya, and potentially invading Syria, as well as the MILLIONS we have killed in Iran and Afghanistan ever mentioned?
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-1 # Ani Zonneveld 2013-08-12 16:40
Quoting Leila LAbate:
Were touchy and devastating subjects like drone -bombing, economic sanctions on Syria and Iran, invading Libya, and potentially invading Syria, as well as the MILLIONS we have killed in Iran and Afghanistan ever mentioned?

Leila, yes, I was invited to a policy briefing held before the iftar, where some of the heads of Muslim organizations including Muslims for Progressive Values got to express, ask questions about various domestic and international policies.
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0 # Gary Nach 2013-09-25 17:17
Thank you for sharing your experience. I never would have heard this in mainstream media. I would have enjoyed a more in depth report. Dialogue, what a concept? Who wudda thought?
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