Trump shuns White House Eid iftar meal
Marked since 1805 by US presidents
IN THE early days of December 1805, a handful of prominent politicians received formal invitations to join president Thomas Jefferson for a White House dinner.
Such entreaties were not uncommon – Jefferson frequently hosted lawmakers for political working dinners at the White House.
But this gathering, on December 9, would be slightly different. “Dinner will be on the table precisely at sunset”, the invitations read.
The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the US, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before.
And the reason for the dinner’s later-than-usual start was Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadaan, a holy month for Muslims in which observers fast between dawn and dusk, only eating when breaking their fast after sunset with a meal, referred to as an iftar.
Historians have cited the meal as the first time an iftar took place in the White House – and it has been referenced in recent White House celebrations of Ramadaan as an embodiment of the Founding Father’s respect for religious freedom.
However, the modern-day White House tradition of marking Ramadaan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration has come to an end.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Ramadaan has come and gone without the White House recognising it with an iftar, or celebrating the holiday Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the holy month, as had taken place each year under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
In recent weeks, several former White House staff members said they would usually begin planning an iftar “months in advance” and didn’t anticipate the Trump White House could pull something off before the end of Ramadaan.
White House officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Late on Saturday, the day that Ramadaan was set to end, the White House released a short statement from President Trump and the first lady recognising the holiday.
“Muslims in the United States joined those around the world during the holy month of Ramadaan to focus on acts of faith and charity,” the statement read.
“During this holiday, we are reminded of the importance of mercy, compassion, and goodwill. With Muslims around the world, the United States renews our commitment to honour these values. Eid Mubarak.”
In late May, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly said the State Department would break with recent tradition and not host a Ramadaan reception, as it had done nearly annually for two decades.
On Saturday, Tillerson also released a brief statement sending “best wishes to all Muslims celebrating Eid al-Fitr”.
Tillerson’s and Trump’s brief remarks were in stark contrast to Obama, who released a lengthy statement for the holiday last year, as well as to ceremonies hosted at the White House for the past 20 years.
The modern-day White House tradition of celebrating Ramadaan with a reception or meal started in 1996, when first lady Hillary Clinton hosted about 150 people for a reception for Eid al-Fitr, the “feast of the breaking of the fast”.
Clinton described the reception as a “historic and overdue occasion”, a precedent for Muslim religious celebrations at the White House. The tradition continued under President George W Bush, who hosted an iftar dinner every year of his two terms in office including shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when anger toward Muslim Americans was spiking.
Bush said his message for the dinner would be: “We’re a nation of many faiths.” Asked if the sentiment was symbolic, he immediately replied: “No – it’s real.”
But it was under Obama that the annual White House iftar dinner began to cause a bigger stir – in part because the president resurrected the story of Jefferson’s 1805 dinner with Mellimelli. “Ramadaan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America,” Obama said at the 2010 White House iftar.
US President Donald Trump.