Ramadan this year began for most American Muslims at sundown on Friday, May 26, and like most other events in the United States today, much discussion of it focused around how the Trump Administration would react.
The President and First Lady have hosted a White House iftar, the dinner that breaks Muslims’ daily fast, annually since George W Bush hosted one during Ramadan 2001, which fell two months after the September 11 attacks. (This amended a less-formalized tradition of hosting a White House Eid al-Fitr reception to celebrate the end of Ramadan, begun in 1996 under President Bill Clinton and seen as the initiative of then First Lady Hillary Clinton.)
As the tradition has continued, the guest list has evolved to include representatives of American Muslim communities, rather than the early focus on foreign dignitaries of Muslim-majority countries.
As a candidate, Donald Trump said that “it wouldn’t bother me” to host a White House iftar. However, this year both the White House and the State Department have indicated their decision to break with executive branch tradition. President Trump issued a striking Ramadan greeting that focused on extremism, but announced no plans for a White House iftar.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a warm Ramadan message, but decided against hosting an iftar or Eid al Fitr dinner, despite being asked to do so by the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. This breaks a practice begun under Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who hosted the department’s first iftar at the end of 1999, with a guest list that featured American Muslims and a speech that promised to hire more Muslims.
Less well known is the Pentagon’s iftar dinner tradition, which reportedly also began under the Clinton administration, in 1998. “A good believer is a great soldier,” then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said. The Pentagon is continuing its iftar tradition this year.
Yet while the iftar stories drew most of the media attention, a much longer-lasting Ramadan story was again playing out, as it has since 2001, in the House of Representatives. In November 2001, then-Representative John LaFalce, who represented western New York, introduced a resolution “recognizing the commencement of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and spiritual renewal, and commending Muslims in the United States and throughout the world for their faith”.
The bill included 26 co-sponsors, including five Republican Representatives, and died in committee. In 2004, a different Representative, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) introduced a resolution with almost the same language. It, too, died in committee. She introduced the resolution in 2005. This time the Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended that it be considered by the full House, but it too died without coming to a floor vote. In 2006, she introduced the resolution again; it died in committee.
In 2007, she introduced the resolution and it passed as H.R. 635 – but with text that focused equally on terrorism, commending “Muslims in the United States and across the globe who have privately and publicly rejected interpretations and movements of Islam that justify and encourage hatred, violence, and terror.” It passed with 30 co-sponsors (29 Democrats), on a roll-call vote that garnered 376 yeses. Since then, Representative Johnson has introduced resolutions to recognize the month of Ramadan five times – most recently, on May 26. Every one has died in committee.
Like the original, 2001 resolution, the 2017 resolution notes that since September 11, “threats and incidents of violence have been directed at law-abiding, patriotic Americans … particularly members of the Islamic faith”, and that the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning “bigotry and violence” against Arab-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and American Muslims.
It adds that “over 3,700 Muslims serve on active duty” and 1,900 as reserve members of the US military. It resolves that as a gesture of solidarity and support, “the House of Representatives recognizes the Islamic faith as one of the great religions of the world” and “acknowledges the onset of Ramadan and expresses its deepest respect to Muslims in the United States and throughout the world”.
Like most simple House resolutions, this one is anodyne and presumably effectless. Muslims will celebrate Ramadan regardless of Congressional recognition. Yet of the ten resolutions proposed, only one was taken to the floor for a roll call vote, and passed only with a dramatically different text than that of the other nine.
Further, while the first iteration of the Ramadan resolution included neatly 20% Republican sponsorship, subsequent resolutions have been almost or entirely Democratic in sponsorship. What it suggests is that Congressional recognition of Ramadan is politically a particularly contentious issue, as well as a partisan one.
Perhaps the story being told about Ramadan and American politics should be not that of Ramadan’s celebration at the White House and in the State Department, but of the near-impossibility of getting any recognition of a major religious holiday, celebrated by 24% of the world’s population, at the Congressional level. It’s the legislative branch, perhaps more than the executive, that we should be watching here.
Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites. Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.