President Trump’s surprising Ramadan message to Muslims

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Offering warm greetings on Ramadan and hosting an iftar meal have been standard White House behavior for decades during the major Muslim holiday – but not during the Trump presidency. That appears to be changing.

Ramadan last year featured a White House holiday statement focusing on terrorism, including President Donald Trump’s comment that the sacred holiday tens of millions observe “strengthens awareness of our shared obligation to reject violence.” The White House and the State Department broke with tradition and didn’t hold a celebratory iftar (the ceremonial break-fast meal each sunset during Ramadan).

But Tuesday, the White House released a statement with a markedly different tone, saying Ramadan “reminds us of the richness Muslims add to the religious tapestry of American life.” The month-long holiday begins this week.

The White House is also exploring working with the State Department to host an iftar in early June, said Ray Mahmood, a prominent Muslim real estate developer who has long been involved in interfaith diplomacy in the Washington area.

“I think they are doing one, from what we’ve heard,” Mahmood said. Asked about the weight of such a ritual event at a time when the country is experiencing a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, and as the White House continues in court to press what candidate Trump called the “Muslim ban,” Mahmood said these steps are significant.

“I think they are very important to the Muslim community. At least they feel the president at the White House is doing this, which shows some tolerance and acceptance,” he said Wednesday.

Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said Wednesday that the White House had “no update at this time.”

Relations between most Muslim Americans and Trump soured during his candidacy after he proposed banning all Muslims from the United States as a security measure against terrorism. In 2016, he began advocating mosque surveillance, saying that “we have to go and we have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques.”

Most Republican voters supported Trump’s proposals, but polling this month shows that a majority of Americans think Trump’s policies “have further disadvantaged Muslims,” according to research done in February by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Why the moves are happening isn’t clear, and the White House wouldn’t comment on that question, but some longtime observers of the way presidents have engaged with Muslim issues noted that last year Stephen Bannon was still chief strategist at the White House. Bannon has long sharply criticized Islam in various ways and many considered him hostile to Muslims. Bannon left the White House in August.

“I’d argue there is a sense of urgency that’s more acute because anti-Muslim sentiment has become so mainstream. There is a feeling these types of events are needed even more,” said one of those observers.

The White House is exploring holding a relatively small iftar June 6, with a few dozen people invited, according to some who had heard of the planning. Attendees primarily would be ambassadors from countries with large Muslim populations, and some U.S. Muslim leaders.

Although the Muslim American community is small, its voting power has in recent decades been very concentrated in one party or the other for president. President George W. Bush got 78 percent of the Muslim American vote, but the GOP bond began to nose-dive after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq War, and the subsequent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton won huge majorities of Muslim Americans.

Even so, for many, these events that may seem to most Americans like simple social happenings can reflect symbolic and even policy and political implications. Even with wide Muslim American voting support for Obama, for example, some Muslims urged boycotts of Obama’s iftars to protest what they considered improper U.S. surveillance of mosques, and also U.S. support of Israel in its engagement in Gaza.

A former State Department official said that such parties are carried out by protocol officials but that the events’ existence is driven by policymakers and thus should be viewed through that lens.

Video: The first White House iftar, the breaking of the fast, was held in December 1805 under Thomas Jefferson. Here how White House administrations have celebrated Ramadan.

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