By Faatimah Knight
A couple of weeks ago I began reading Dreams from My Father after watching a talk the President had given right after the book was published almost 20 years ago. Even though my mother had bought copies around the time Obama was campaigning and she joined his campaign in Harrisburg, I had never until two weeks ago picked up the book with serious intent to read it. But there was something in that younger Obama talking about his roots and his young adulthood and his passions that mesmerized me. There was something familiar in his skin tone and in his spirit that pulled me in.
It was in that moonlight that I got the invitation to attend the White House Iftar.
I had passed up an earlier opportunity to speak with the President because I was not comfortable with the implications of such a meeting or confident that I could deliver. I sought advice from elders, and sat heavily and still reflecting on what mattered to me, hoping it might matter to him based off the little I had gathered from his memoir. In the end, I did not go. In hindsight, I think that more intimate gathering would have been the better space for me to meet the President. Simply put, I am an introvert. I would usually rather observe than participate, rather listen than speak, rather write than preach. Like a lot of introverted folks, I come alive in intimate conversations with a few people and very little pomp and circumstance.
I was anxious and hesitant and worried which probably made me the least excited person to meet the President. In fact, one of my peers commented on my aloof demeanor. It was not that I didn’t want to meet him, but rather that I didn’t know what meeting him meant.
I respect people who boycott and those who would not touch the White House with a four-foot pole, so to speak. However, there are others who see benefit in wrestling with the forces that be to draw out some good.
Those were the kinds of people I met, Muslim White House staffers who by their own accounts did not foresee working so closely with the President when they started out. They still maintain their autonomy and their own opinions — some of which differ from the President’s, but they also stand by him for the work that he has done and the work he promises to do with their help. I think that last part is important- with their help– because as the saying goes “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It’s not only that these staffers are sitting at the table, but they also have their hand in choosing the restaurant.
It does worry me sometimes how quickly we can scratch people from our lists of those who matter. Or the ways in which we tyrannically dictate to others how they should behave and whom they should associate with. I think it’s wrong to treat our government or our President just like we would any other foreign government we deem to be pushing a bad agenda. This is ours. Our country. Our President. I’m not willing to throw him away. How do you ever exhaust a person? At what point do you decide that someone is no longer malleable?
I think there are some who see boycotting this administration as especially hard-core activism because the President is Black. I could see how there might be more street credibility in claiming to not care that he’s Black. I actually care a little bit more because he is Black. It softens me just a little. It softens me because I identify with him as a Black person, because I admire him as a Black father, and I recognize his struggle in the larger Black struggle. As my father likes to say: “Obama can’t even breathe right to some people.” For Muslims, we might benefit from taking a historical look at how previous (and current) Muslim communities have been able to influence the government. Take the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands and the later conversion of the Mongols, for example.
Unlike some Muslims, my interests are not exclusive to Muslim needs. I care deeply about the collective fate of Black children in this country. I wrote about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx who was handcuffed for a crime he did not commit, had his bail set at an amount his parents could not afford, imprisoned for three years at Rikers and while detained suffered physical abuse at the hands of guards and other inmates, suffered from mental health issues on account of it and tried to kill himself at least five times to escape the torture that had become his life.
I know the President cares about the fate of Black children as well. That’s why he started My Brother’s Keeper to address opportunity gaps for young boys that block them from reaching their full potential. For me, that’s an area where my interests align with the administration’s interests. It’s an opportunity to get involved. Of course it does not overshadow the administration’s problematic foreign policy, but it is a vehicle through which we can connect and make a social impact.
As Muslims we must acknowledge that many of the issues we have are not because of anyone but ourselves. Yes, persistently negative media attention does hurt us, but so do masjids that don’t let women on the board.
Mistreating and misinforming those who embrace the faith anew hurts us. Overly strict interpretations of the religion and domineering attitudes when forcing those interpretations on others hurt us.
There was nothing controversial about the people I sat with at the President’s table. Each young person I sat with was doing amazing work that should make all of us proud. From education initiatives for girls in East Africa, health services to displaced peoples in Gaza, re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated youth and political freedom for Rohingya Muslims in Burma. I am motivated by them to do more for others with the blessing that is youth. I walked out of those interactions with a palpable sense of urgency, like winds were pushing me forward.
I think it’s consequential for a student (or any representative) from the first Muslim liberal arts college in America to meet the first black president. We should not exist in different worlds, not when both claim to be working on behalf of the best interests of America and it’s people. It is at the very least, symbolically potent.
I feel confident when to the President’s right sat Batoul Abuharb, a Palestinian American who has done more for her people than most. If she can sit to the President’s right on Monday and go home on Tuesday to organize and bring more aid to Palestinians abroad then there is no need to think that disengaging from the government necessarily means you care more about your people. People like myself can talk a big talk about Palestine, but people like Batoul actually do something about the plight of the Palestinian people.
I’m fortunate to have people who protect and advise me and know the world better than I do. Yet, I wanted this to be something that I experienced for myself and then judged based on my personal observations and not based on someone else’s. Now that I have some insight, I hope to have more opportunities to engage the government on matters close to my heart. I can’t possibly give up before I’ve really tried. So I say to the President: It was a pleasure and an honor.
Faatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College. An earlier version of this post appeared on UmmahWide.