Trump hosts dinner honoring Ramadan, despite tensions with Muslims
By NAHAL TOOSI
After skipping it last year, President Donald Trump on Wednesday hosted an iftar dinner to honor the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, declaring it “a great month.”
But in a sign of the lingering tension between Trump and the U.S. Islamic community, the guest list appeared skewed toward foreign diplomats, not American Muslims.
Activists, meanwhile, held a counter-event — titled “NOT Trump’s Iftar” — in a park across from the White House. Some said the president’s policies had so alienated U.S. Muslims that few would have accepted an invitation to break their daily Ramadan fast with him.
Around 50 people were at the White House dinner, including Vice President Mike Pence, several Cabinet secretaries, and ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
“In gathering together this evening we honor a sacred tradition of one of the world’s great religions,” Trump said, speaking from notes. He added that Ramadan is a celebration of a “timeless message of peace, clarity and love. There is great love.”
“It’s a great month,” Trump said at one point, grinning. “A lot of friends, a lot of great friends.”
Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, a month that involves prayer, reflection and fasting from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun has set, Muslims break their daily fast with a meal known as an iftar, often surrounded by friends and family.
U.S. presidents from both political parties have regularly hosted special iftar dinners in a tradition that dates to the Bill Clinton administration. Prominent American Muslims as well as diplomats from Muslim-majority countries have been invited in the past.
Trump, however, abandoned the iftar tradition his first year in office. The decision wasn’t entirely a surprise given his frequently hostile comments about Islam, a centuries-old religion with 1.6 billion adherents around the world.
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During his campaign for president, he often spoke of the religion in the context of terrorist acts carried out by a small number of its followers, at one point saying in an interview with CNN, “I think Islam hates us.”
Trump claimed falsely that American Muslims in New Jersey had celebrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States as a way to reduce terrorism.
While in office, Trump has imposed a travel ban targeting people from a handful of countries, most of them with majority-Muslim populations. Some of his aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, have links to groups that many Muslims consider Islamophobic. (Neither Pompeo nor Bolton were spotted in the room by reporters nor mentioned by Trump on Wednesday night.)
At the same time, Trump has cultivated friendly ties with the leaders of several prominent Muslim-majority countries, including Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which he views as key to U.S. national security priorities, including containing Iran.
During his speech on Wednesday night, Trump spoke fondly of how his first presidential visit to a country overseas was to Saudi Arabia, where he addressed a gathering of dozens of leaders of Muslim-majority countries. He called his visit “one of the great two days of my life.”
“Only by working together can we achieve a future of security and prosperity for all,” Trump added in comments clearly aimed at the diplomats.
As he often does in public settings, Trump also referenced America’s “tremendous economy,” calling it the “best we’ve ever had.”
U.S. Muslim activists contacted by POLITICO said they were unaware of any person in their community being invited to the White House dinner. Some said they would have declined because of how Trump has cast aspersions on their loyalty to the United States.
“No one in the Muslim community can look at his actions and think that he is a friend,” said Bilal Askaryar, who helped organize the counter-iftar. “This is a man treating us like we don’t belong.”
The White House did not immediately release a guest list on Wednesday night, and it did not reply to a query from POLITICO about how many U.S. Muslims were on it. But in a statement ahead of the dinner, it indicated that the invitees were largely foreign officials.
“Iftar is one of the religious observances of Ramadan and is often done as a community, with people gathering to break their fast together,” the White House said. “Today at 8 p.m., President Trump will host an iftar dinner in the State Dining Room at the White House for the Washington diplomatic community.”
Trump, in his remarks, thanked several of his top aides for attending, including Pence, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. His son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, was also present.
The imam invited to lead the Muslim call to prayer during the White House event was Dawud Abdul-Aziz Agbere, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in the chaplain corps. Trump, who offered general thanks to the Muslim community “at home and abroad for joining us,” expressed special appreciation to Agbere, though he stumbled by referring to him as “Iman.”
While Trump is viewed with unusually high levels of skepticism by U.S. Muslims, past iftar dinners held at the White House have often brought mixed emotions to the faith community.
President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and President Barack Obama’s use of drones were among the issues that upset many U.S. Muslims, and some were criticized for attending the White House events.
As Trump dined with his guests on Wednesday, dozens of Muslims as well as non-Muslim allies gathered in protest across from the White House.
People held signs and chanted, “Say it loud, say it clear: Muslims are welcome here!” They also prayed. Organizers brought food to share with those breaking their fast at the demonstration.
The participants included Mussab Ali, who last year, at the age of 20, was elected to the Jersey City school board. Ali urged other Muslims to find ways to stand up to Trump, including by running for office.
“I believe that we as individuals need to think bigger than Donald Trump,” said Ali, who described himself as a “loyal son of Jersey City.”
“We need to fight hate with love,” he said.