Reflections of ING President on Iftar Dinner with President Obama

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

I had the honor and distinction of sitting at President Obama’s table at the White House iftar dinner on Wednesday, August 10th. The iftar (breaking of fast) dinner is a tradition that was initiated during the Clinton administration and continued under the Bush administration. Seated at the table with me were two Muslim members of 9/11 families, the fire marshal from the film Muhammad, Legacy of a Prophet, ISNA president and ADAMS center director Imam Mohamed Magid, a Muslim football player, two Muslim military personnel, and a rabbi who is a well-known interfaith leader.

President Obama was eloquent as always in his opening remarks, in which he emphasized that the dinner reflected America’s diversity; he pointed out the contributions of American Muslims, including Muslim victims of 9/11, some of whose family members were in attendance.

After he concluded his speech, he joined our table and began the conversation by asking for introductions. His down-to-earth manner and sincere, engaged, and gracious demeanor impressed us all.

Over dinner, I emphasized the work we do at ING promoting understanding of Islam & Muslims, interfaith engagement, and bullying prevention. I told him how inspired and grateful I felt after attending the White House conference on bullying that led me to disseminate the federally promoted Stop Bullying Now program to several hundred youth at the MYNA and ISNA conventions. I thanked him for his recognition of American Muslim contributions to the U.S. and for his administration’s inclusion of Muslim staffers and interns.

In the ensuing conversation I also voiced appreciation for his administration’s outreach to Muslim organizations and his speech in Cairo and interview on Al-Arabiyya, while at the same time expressing my concern about the political environment, particularly what I call the “Perfect Storm”: the confluence of upcoming events, including the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential elections in which the myth of his being Muslim is sure to be highlighted, the anti-Sharia movement across the country, and other factors that have increasingly demonized American Muslims.

I asked his advice about overcoming the prejudice against Muslims that has increased in recent years, as evidenced in polls such as the 2010 Gallup survey showing that 53% of Americans have unfavorable views of Islam and 43% admit to feeling prejudice toward Muslims. He responded with optimism and, reflecting our philosophy at ING, encouraged me to continue the good work we do in education and interfaith engagement because he believed in the fundamental decency of the American people and was confident that what ING does in engaging and talking to people can and will overcome prejudice. Similarly, when I asked him how he plans to overcome partisanship in Congress in the coming year, he replied that he would take the issues to the American people directly.

I also discussed the impact of climate change on areas such as Somalia and other Muslim countries, where the policies of Western powers are directly contributing to the situation. I asked him whether his administration considers environmental factors in the formulation of national security policies: issues such as climate change, growing shortage of water, trade agreements, migration, man-made drought and famine that lead to situations such as that of Somalia. He responded enthusiastically that he in fact considers them to have potentially greater impact on national security than political conflicts, but that the media showed no interest in covering these issues.

After meeting with him two things struck me: first, he acts in accord what he professes concerning the inclusion of all peoples and groups, even when it is politically unfavorable, as in the case of the American Muslim community; and second, his humility and civility, as shown by his manner of engaging people around the table, are unmistakable and are a breath of fresh air in the current political climate.

Whether one agrees with him or not, his manner of interacting and responding even to those he disagrees with points to his character and sets him apart from those who claim to be speaking in the name of their faith while demonstrating qualities that all faiths condemn.

I look forward to continuing to work with the White House and members of his administration on bullying prevention, interfaith engagement, dispelling stereotypes, and fostering understanding and mutual respect among all Americans.