Trump’s first Ramadan and his good Muslims
Muslims were curious to find out how U.S. President Donald Trump was going to manage the holy month of Ramadan. Still today, the question at the back of Muslim minds is whether - as a sitting president - Trump is hostile to Islam or not. Muslim activists in the U.S. argue that his breaking away from the White House tradition of holding an iftar is a manifestation of his core beliefs, which are fundamentally disrespectful to Islam - to say the least.
Since the beginning of Ramadan, my American colleagues have been eager to find out if an iftar with Trump would ever take place. After all, the president’s previous record of a strong anti-Muslim stance during the election campaign hangs on there. He had pledged to kick all Syrian refugees out of the country, implied to consider closing down mosques and had infamously said things like “I think Islam hates us. We have to get to the bottom of it.”
Although he softened the tone a little since he took office back in January, his ambition for a travel ban on six Muslim nations (previously seven) still persists despite the blocking by several federal courts. He continues to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” regardless of some key advisors around him strongly advising him not to.
Trump did issue a statement to acknowledge Ramadan, although the content of the statement displayed a sharp drift from Ramadan messages of Barack Obama and even George W. Bush. Obama’s last Ramadan message had tones of empathy for Muslim refugees who could not observe the holy month from the comfort of their homes. Bush in his first Ramadan message after 9/11 did not mention terrorism at all and rather focused on the diversity of the American Muslim community, which has a population of 3.3 million today.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump in his Ramadan message took a dangerous path and differentiated between good Muslims and bad Muslims. With reference to the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena, he said such acts would only steel their resolve to defeat terrorists and their perverted ideology. Furthermore, he underlined that America will always stand with its partners against terrorism and the ideology that fuels it while citing his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Until today, the White House did not utter a word about hosting or not hosting an iftar this year despite persistent questions from the media. But since we are only two days away from the end of Ramadan, it is fair to say Trump broke the iftar tradition of the White House, which officially existed since Hillary Clinton hosted one back in 1996 when she was first lady. For some American historians, the iftar tradition dates back to 1805 when President Thomas Jefferson adjusted the dinner time at the White House to accommodate his guest - an Ottoman-era ambassador from Tunis – to break his fast.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined his president in refusing to host an iftar while the Pentagon held its traditional iftar to honor Muslim Americans who are serving in the armed forces and their families, which was yet another sign of declining soft power of the U.S.
In parallel to this new mode of the White House on Ramadan, Trump’s tendency to choose his own “good Muslims” in order to broaden his camp for fighting “radical Islamist terrorists” peaked with the recent crisis between Qatar and other Muslim states in the region under the patronage of Saudis.
We need to consider this backdrop while trying to analyze Tillerson’s remarks at congress last week where he said elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have become part of governments in Turkey and Bahrain. Although Tillerson advocated against blacklisting the Muslim Brotherhood in its entirety as a terrorist group for the sake of relations with foreign governments, Trump’s possible future attempts is a wild guess for anyone.
Moreover, Tillerson’s assumption of a link between the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) cannot be treated as a petty mistake. Those words represent a Freudian slip - if nothing more - the consequences of which might be reflected on policies. Indeed, this Ramadan has been full of sharp reminders of the Trump administration’s real feelings toward Muslims.