What I learned from attending the White House Iftar

This past Monday, I attended the White House Iftar with several incredible American Muslims, ambassadors, and government officials. As I received my invitation, I immediately felt hesitant because of the general criticism from internet Muslims about the annual iftar at the White House and especially because of last year's controversial iftar which turned into a provocative and unexpected endorsement of Israel during the attacks in Gaza in 2014.

Ultimately, I made the decision to go because this intense passion I have to seek out answers to the problems our community faces. To do this, it's imperative that we engage with elected officials, and most notably the current administration, whenever and where ever we get the chance. Instead of boycotting the iftar or badmouthing the people who did choose to attend (don't look up the #WhiteHouseIftar tag on Twitter, it's dangerously mean), I chose to take action in my hand.

Before entering the dining hall, I had the opportunity to meet with incredibly intelligent and accomplished Muslims from all over the country. I was pleasantly surprised by how many young Muslim Americans were in attendance. Among the people I met were Samantha Elauf, who took her hijab discrimination case against Abercrombie & Fitch to the Supreme Court--and won, Kadra Mohamed, the first Somali-Muslim-American police officer in the St. Paul Police Department (in uniform!), Munira Khalif, a brilliant young lady who was accepted into all 8 Ivy League schools and is attending Harvard this fall as a freshman. These Muslims are awe-inspiring and it was an absolute pleasure to have met them all. I was also so excited and relieved when I found out how normal and humble and just as nervous-excited as I was to be at the White House. 

When I entered the dining hall, I noticed my table was right besides the President's table and it all became real. On my table was a myriad of accomplished Muslim Americans as well as Valerie Jarrett, one of President Obama's Senior Advisers. To say I was impressed by the Muslims in attendance is an understatement. Much to the critics dismay, the attendees were in fact not there solely for a photo-op, but were there to ask the tough questions. I don't think President Obama or Valerie Jarrett expected the challenging questions on hate crimes, Palestinian-American entry into the occupied territories in Palestine, concerns on the Countering Violent Terrorism (CVE) tactics, and gun control issues among other problems that matter to us as a Muslim American community. In addition the questions asked, answers and suggestions were also given by brilliant young Muslims like Riham Osman, the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Communication Coordinator, who was also seated at the President's table. You can read her full statement here.

This experience taught me several things:

One, in the words of Osman, "Muslims have access." We are given this opportunity to  directly engage with the President and senior level officials. We mustn't take this invitation for granted and instead use it to yes, celebrate the accomplishments of Muslim Americans, but also to voice our concerns on a higher level.

Two, people can say a lot without actually saying anything. The hurtful comments I read on Twitter criticizing the White House Iftar attendees only shows that people are really good at attacking one another behind computer and phone screens.

Three, I need to make this opportunity I was given and turn it into something meaningful. My engagement with the White House doesn't end at the dining room door. Instead, I'm committed to taking this opportunity and the pure inspiration I got from all the incredible Muslims in attendance and becoming more civically engaged. Boycotting these types of spaces to engage with the administration hinders the growth and success of our Muslim community here in the United States.

Rawan Elbaba