Breaking a tradition that stretches back to President Bill Clinton and continued through George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump declined to host a dinner at the White House in honor of Ramadan. Instead, Trump and first lady Melania Trump issued a statement on June 24, 2017 sending warm wishes to those celebrating Eid al-Fitr.
Eid al-Fitr is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Ramadan is marked by fasting that occurs from sunrise to sunset. The time of Ramadan changes every year because the Islamic calendar is not in precise adherence to the Gregorian calendar of January to December. Instead, the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, which means that the month of Ramadan moves roughly 10 days backward every year compared to the Gregorian calendar. This year, Ramadan ended at sundown on Saturday night.
This move by the Trump administration to not hold a meal that celebrates the breaking of the day’s fast during Ramadan breaks a nearly 20-year tradition. Typically, a White House hosted iftar – the Islamic term for the meal – would be attended by diplomats from Muslim countries as well as members of Congress. Additionally, local and national Muslim leaders or prominent Muslims would be invited to attend.
In another break from tradition, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected a request from the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host an event marking Eid al-Fitr. This is a tradition that has been taking place since 1999. Tillerson’s predecessors, whether Republican or Democrat, have hosted an iftar dinner or a reception in honor of Eid al-Fitr.
Some argue that the tradition goes back even farther than the late 20th century. In December of 1805, Thomas Jefferson hosted a formal White House dinner. However, while most of his dinner parties began at about 3:30 in the afternoon, this one was set to begin at sunset. The invitations read, “Dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set – The favour of an answer is asked.”
The reason for the late start is that there was a Tunisian envoy present. Sidi Soliman Mellimelli had arrived in the United States to discuss with President Jefferson the state of conflict with the Barbary States at the time. The official end to the First Barbary War took place earlier in the year on June 10, 1805 with the signing of a peace treaty. However, raiding by the Barbary pirates still continued with Algiers continuing to raid American ships.
Historians argue whether this was officially an iftar dinner, but as it was a meal that allowed the Honorable Mellimelli to break his Ramadan fast, the answer seems clear that it was.
For their part, the Trump White House issued a brief statement that read in part the following.
“On behalf of the American people, I would like to wish all Muslims a joyful Ramadan. During this month of fasting from dawn to dusk, many Muslims in America and around the world will find meaning and inspiration in acts of charity and meditation that strengthen our communities. At its core, the spirit of Ramadan strengthens awareness of our shared obligation to reject violence, to pursue peace, and to give to those in need who are suffering from poverty or conflict…I extend my best wishes to Muslims everywhere for a blessed month as you observe the Ramadan traditions of charity, fasting, and prayer. May God bless you and your families.”
Rex Tillerson also released his own statement on behalf of the State Department, a scant 58-word statement that read the following.
“On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, best wishes to all Muslims celebrating Eid al-Fitr. This holiday marks the culmination of Ramadan, a month in which many experience meaning and inspiration in acts of fasting, prayer, and charity. This day offers an opportunity to reflect on our shared commitment to building peaceful and prosperous communities. Eid Mubarak.”
Of curious note is that the White House did host the Annual Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House at 6 p.m. on June 22, 2017. The Congressional Picnic is also an annual tradition that stretches back to President Reagan. What the exclusion of one White House tradition and the inclusion of another means for the Trump Administration is open to debate.
[Featured Image by Alex Brandon/AP Images]