In an historic first, Congress held an iftar dinner—the breaking of the Ramadan fast—on Capitol Hill on May 20, 2019, attended by about 100 people. Its meaning and significance were particularly notable in the environment of growing Islamophobia in the U.S. Hosted by three congressional Muslim lawmakers— Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and André Carson (D-Ind.)—the event highlighted the heightened public profile of Muslims in Washington and their recognition by members of Congress. It was co-hosted by the national civil rights non-profit called Muslim Advocates.
“It’s important to take a moment to recognize how historic this iftar is. My existence, along with the other dynamic Muslim members of Congress go beyond the lines of our districts, our presence challenges the narrative of who’s at the table and who deserves to have a voice in our government. This event lifts an entire community that has felt unseen for far too long,” said Tlaib in a statement.
Both representatives Omar and Tlaib have been mired in political controversy over their identity, religion, and public statements that have been weaponized by right-wing media outlets calling them “anti-Semitic” ever since they ascended to U.S. Congress in January 2019. Omar, in particular, came under verbal attacks over her criticism of Israeli policies, America’s support of Israel, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – a pro-Israel lobbying body in the U.S. Her critics included the House Democratic leadership, which condemned some of her statements, interpreting them as anti-Semitic.
While Omar issued an apology for particular words that were perceived by some as anti-Semitic, she re-emphasized her criticism of “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”
Tlaib also came under fire from conservatives in increasingly polarized Washington for reportedly anti-Semitic remarks and her criticism of Israeli government’s policies. On a number of occasions, the two Congresswomen stressed that there has been relentless fear-mongering about them to distract people from the real issues as well as outsized scrutiny and reactions to their statements stemming from gender and racial prejudice. Perhaps more alarmingly, there were reported death threats against both Omar and Tlaib.
Sharing his observations on the backlash against his fellow Muslim colleagues on Capitol Hill, André Carson said: “It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say – if you’re a Muslim, it’s going to get exaggerated.”
President Donald Trump hosted his own iftar dinner at the White House on May 14, 2019, although no American Muslims attended or were even invited. Welcoming diplomats and ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries, President Trump said that America was founded on the belief that citizens of all faiths can live together. In his message on Ramadan in early May 2019, he also called for “a more harmonious and respectful society.”
President Trump held his first iftar dinner in 2018. In 2017, however, he did not host the gathering, thereby breaking the annual tradition that began under President Bill Clinton in 1996.
As in 2018, this year’s White House iftar did not include American members of Congress or local Muslim groups. Some American Muslims stressed that they would have declined an invitation from the White House in any case in the face of the Trump administration’s harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, which includes the now infamous January 2017 presidential Executive Order 13769 that banned entry to travelers from Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Chad, and Syria, reduced the number of refugees to the U.S., and suspended the admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely. Later, Iraq, Chad, and Sudan were removed from the list, and North Korea and Venezuela were added.
As a result of these policies and hostile attitudes, Muslims feel vulnerable, unjustly targeted, and discriminated against under the current political climate in the U.S. FBI data showed that 2018 experienced the largest rise in hate crimes against American Muslims since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., constituting nearly 20 percent of all religion-based incidents. In light of the massacre by an alleged white supremacist of 51 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand this March, security measures in American mosques have been strengthened during this year’s Ramadan.
Speaking at the Congressional iftar, Farhana Khera, executive director Muslim Advocates, said: “This evening, at a time of unprecedented levels of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes, together we showed that we will not be intimidated or cowed by those who wish to demonize and marginalize American Muslims. We will express our faith, our dignity and our commitment to caring for each other and our nation.”
Democratic members of Congress who spoke at the event shared a message of inclusion and acceptance and commitment to fighting back against hatred and white nationalism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not attend the event, citing a last minute emergency. While Republican members of Congress were also invited, none of them were reported to have attended. Not surprised by the no-show of his Republican colleagues, Congressman Carson noted that they perhaps were “not willing to risk the political stigma attached to Islam in the Republican party.”
Recognizing Khizr Khan in the audience—the Gold Star father who criticized President Trump, particularly his anti-Muslim policies, at the 2016 Democratic national convention—Ilhan Omar during her brief speech at the iftar recalled President Trump’s infamous remark about whether Muslim women were “allowed” to speak.
“Little did they know they were going to get the two loudest Muslim women in the country in Congress with the biggest mic,” she said. “They are mortified about the fact that they awakened these Muslim women to fight for their space in Congress.”
The election of the two Muslim women to the U.S. Congress gave hope to Muslims across the country that. Although it may take years of active discourse and engagement to overcome these problems, they may begin to change negative perceptions and stereotypes about Muslims in America and make their voices heard.