U.S. President George W. Bush's latest gesture to persuade Muslims both here and abroad that the United States is not seeking a "clash of civilisations" has not gone over well with its intended audience.
The White House was clearly hoping its Iftaar dinner Tuesday evening, to which ambassadors from predominantly Muslim nations and individual U.S. Muslims were invited to break their Ramadan fast with the president, would send a reassuring message to the Islamic world.
Mightily embarrassed by the controversy raging over the recently publicised anti-Islamic views of the U.S. general in charge of the hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, administration officials no doubt were looking for ways to mitigate the damage.
But a denunciation of the White House event by a number of national U.S. Muslim organisations just hours before it took place got more attention in the news media than the dinner itself, blunting whatever favourable impact Bush had hoped the gesture might make.
"It seems that the only time this administration wants to meet with us is for photo opportunities, not to hear our concerns about policies here at home and abroad," Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, told reporters at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
He and the leaders of several other Muslim organisations held their own Iftaar dinner across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park.
While the incident hardly made headlines, it spoke volumes about the growing anger felt by U.S. Muslims, a fast-growing and increasingly politicised minority of as many as five million citizens, towards the Bush administration.
That Bush's "war on terrorism" and his almost total backing for the right-wing policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has alienated Muslims abroad, especially in the Arab world, has already been well established by polling data and media coverage.
Indeed, on his recent trip to Asia, Bush himself emerged from a meeting with top Muslim clerics in Bali, Indonesia clearly taken aback by what he had just heard. "Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?" the president was heard asking his aides.
The Indonesians had reportedly pressed him about U.S. intentions in the war on terrorism, as well as his support for Israel in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
But they were also provoked by reports about the incandescent comments of Lt Gen William "Jerry" Boykin, Bush's undersecretary of defence for intelligence, the Pentagon's man in charge of tracking down high-profile targets in the anti-terrorist campaign.
Boykin, who made it a practice to preach in uniform before various evangelical churches around the United States, was taped telling one group that the war on terrorism pits the Judaeo-Christian tradition against "a guy named Satan."
He has also said U.S. enemies "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus." And, speaking of a Muslim warlord in Somalia 10 years ago, Boykin said, "My God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."
Bush has tried to distance himself from Boykin's views, while the Pentagon has initiated an investigation to determine if the general violated any U.S. laws or regulations. In his most direct statement, Bush said Tuesday that Boykin's remarks do not "reflect my point of view, or the view of this administration."
But why Boykin has not been fired, or at least re-assigned, from such a critical post in the anti-terrorist war is increasingly a source of aggravation, not only for Muslims abroad who see the general's attitude as confirming their worst fears about U.S. intentions but also for Muslims at home.
Speaking of the contrast between Bush's Iftaar dinner and the lack of action against Boykin, Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told the Los Angeles Times, "Again we see a disconnect. We hear pleasing words about Islam, then we see complete inaction. He's not reassigned. He's not removed. Nothing."
CAIR, one of the nation's largest Muslim groups with chapters in 15 states, was not invited to the Iftaar dinner although it had taken part in White House events in the past. Hooper told IPS that he supported the decision by other Muslim leaders to break their fast in Lafayette Park.
The main reason why Boykin remains on the job is the pressure that has been brought to bear by Christian Right groups, backed by some Jewish neo-conservatives, who share the general's worldview and make up a core Bush constituency. The Pentagon and White House have reportedly been swamped with calls and emails defending Boykin.
"This notion that religion is not at the heart of the hatred directed at America from outside and now inside the country qualifies as extreme denial," said columnist Cal Thomas, a close associate of televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Any attempt to muzzle Boykin, he wrote in the Washington Times, "is silencing, instead of sounding, the alarm that this enemy is bigger than any threat America has ever faced."
The fact that the Bush White House is apparently swayed by such pressure has only stoked alienation and anger among Muslims both here and abroad.
Khalid Toorani, director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, contrasted the welcome often accorded by the White House to prominent Christian Right leaders, like Reverend Franklin Graham and Attorney General John Ashcroft, and neo-conservative figures like Daniel Pipes with the far less frequent invitations to prominent Muslim figures.
"We ask that the president engage more with the Muslim community," he said at a news conference to announced the dinner boycott.
One Muslim leader who did attend Iftaar at the White House, Khaled Saffuri, the chairman of the Islamic Free Market Institute, said he too was distressed by the administration's failure to at least reassign Boykin.
Calling Boykin's statements "counterproductive" and his continued presence as certain to "hurt the war on terrorism," Saffuri said in an interview that the reaction from the White House and the Pentagon "should have been swift and immediate."
As to accepting the invitation, Saffuri said he was able to raise his concerns about Falwell's anti-Islamic statements with Bush at a similar occasion last year when he was seated next to the president. "I wasn't seated as strategically this year," he said. "It was all diplomats at my table."
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since the well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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