Biden hosts scaled-down Ramadan events amid Gaza outrage

washington — President Joe Biden is meeting with American Muslim community leaders on Tuesday amid outrage from Muslim and Arab Americans over his administration’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

“Continuing his tradition of honoring the Muslim community during Ramadan, President Biden will host a meeting with Muslim community leaders to discuss issues of importance to the community,” a White House official said in a statement sent to VOA.

“He will be joined by Vice President [Kamala] Harris, senior Muslim Administration officials and senior members of his National Security team.”

Following the meeting, the official said they will “host a small breaking of the fast, prayer, and Iftar” with “a number” of senior Muslim administration officials.

Unlike in previous years, American Muslim leaders were not included in the White House iftar, or breaking of the fast meal. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the leaders had declined and asked for a “working group meeting” instead.

“They wanted to make sure that there was an opportunity to discuss the issues at hand,” she said during her briefing Tuesday in response to a VOA question. “We listened, we heard, and we adjusted the format to be responsive so that we can get feedback from them.”

Since taking office, Biden has hosted Muslim community leaders at the White House, a tradition that began with President Bill Clinton in 1996. Except for President Donald Trump in 2017, Republican and Democratic presidents have hosted an iftar dinner during Ramadan or an Eid al-Fitr reception to mark the end of the month of fasting.

Past Ramadan and Eid celebrations usually included diplomats from majority-Muslim countries. Embassies that VOA reached out to said they have not received an invitation this year.

Many decline invitation

Even with the meeting-only format, many community leaders declined to attend, and Biden will likely meet with only a handful of them.

In a social media post, Muslim advocacy group Emgage Action said they had asked Biden to “postpone this gathering and to convene a proper policy meeting with representatives of the community’s choosing rather than those selected by the White House.”

The administration “can and should leverage its enormous support for Israel and begin to take demonstrable actions” including to demand an immediate and permanent cease-fire and unfettered access for humanitarian aid,” the group said.

“Without more Palestinian voices and policy experts in the room, we do not believe today’s meeting will provide for such an opportunity.”

Many who have attended White House Ramadan events in the past said they had no idea about the meeting until VOA reached out to them.

“It’s probably hand-picked people who have been vetted and who have been guaranteed not to speak up and be critical of the president’s policies,” said Jawaid Kotwal, board member of the Afghan American Foundation.

Several White House and Biden campaign events around the country have been marred with disruptions by pro-Palestinian protesters. His constituents — including many Muslim and Arab Americans — have signaled their outrage. Hundreds of thousands voted “uncommitted” in Democratic primary elections in various states.

A Pew survey released Tuesday shows that only 36% of American Muslims view Biden positively. The same survey shows that only 6% believe the U.S. is striking the right balance between the Israelis and Palestinians. Sixty percent say Biden favors the Israelis too much.

‘A time of mourning, not celebration’

“The American Muslim community has made it very clear they have no interest in breaking bread with President Biden while his administration is enabling the starvation and slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell told VOA. Mitchell is deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also known as CAIR.

As the death toll in Gaza approaches 33,000 people, it’s clear that many American Muslims are uncomfortable with the thought of celebrating at the White House.

“This is a time of mourning, not celebration, so we’re only accepting iftars that benefit the poor, refugees and the oppressed,” Salam Al-Marayati, founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told VOA.

CAIR and other Muslim groups and anti-war organizations are hosting a “People’s White House Ceasefire Now Iftar” in front of the White House on Tuesday.

Biden also faces dissent from some administration staff members, particularly those with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, including Tariq Habash, a Palestinian American and former policy adviser at the Department of Education who resigned in protest in January.

The president is “attempting to break bread with Muslim staffers while finalizing the sale of billions of dollars in warplanes to Israel as its extremist government targets humanitarian workers and hospitals,” Habash told VOA.

Biden’s meeting with American Muslims came amid reports that seven aid workers, including at least one dual-nationality American from the NGO World Central Kitchen, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Monday.

The organization, led by celebrity chef Jose Andres, has been leading the efforts to get food to Gaza via a ship from Cyprus.

Iuliia Iarmolenko, Sayed Aziz Rahman, Yuni Salim and Iram Abbasi contributed to this report.

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