Three presidents out of 45 does not make a “tradition.”
And no, Jefferson never held an ‘iftar’ dinner. He had no intention to honour Islam.
The establishment media became upset this weekend after President Donald Trump canceled the “White House Muslim Iftar Dinner tradition started by Thomas Jefferson.” But the media is wrong in every respect. Thomas Jefferson never held any Iftar dinner and only three out of 45 presidents ever hosted one, so there is no such “tradition” to cancel.
Amy B. Wang of the Washington Post led the pack with this nonsense that Thomas Jefferson held the “first Iftar dinner” with a June 24 piece entitled, “Trump just ended a long tradition of celebrating Ramadan at the White House.”
The often-used claim that Thomas Jefferson held the first Iftar dinner at the White House was trotted out by the Post’s Wang. She recounted the time when the diplomatic envoy from the Bey of Tunis, Sidi Soliman Melli Melli, visited Washington during Ramadan in 1805.
Jefferson invited the envoy to the White House for dinner at 3:30 PM—the time most Washingtonians had dinner in those days. But after he sent the invitation he was told that Melli Melli could not partake of a meal until after sunset because of Ramadan. Thomas Jefferson was faced with two choices: cancel the dinner entirely or simply have the meal later in the evening at a time when his guest could attend. As a good host and a decent person, Jefferson chose the latter.
In fact, all Jefferson did was change the time of his meal. He had no intention of honoring Islam. Jefferson simply was not honoring the religion of “the Musselmen”—as he termed Muslims at the time—when he changed the time of the meal. Also, there is no evidence that Jefferson asked Melli Melli what sort of food a “Musselman” would eat, so no special food was prepared to suit a Muslim’s religious needs. Jefferson neither inquired about religious accommodations nor was any made. All he did was move the time of the meal as a courtesy.
Further, Jefferson sent no letters containing proclamations about the meal being an Iftar dinner nor mentioning Islam, he never mentioned such honors in his private papers, and there is no record that he spoke to anyone about his intentions to honor the Muslim practice of an Iftar dinner.
To the Post’s Wang, that Jefferson had a dinner at all was somehow proof positive that he invented a “tradition” of some sort. As “proof” that it was an Iftar dinner, Wang quoted the words of liberal historian John Ragosta who gave the scintillating argument, “Yeah, it sounds to me like an Iftar dinner.”
Wang went on to insist there has been a “modern tradition” of having an Iftar dinner at the White House. But in truth, only three presidents in all of American history ever held an Iftar dinner.
Bill Clinton held the first one, a politically motivated dinner aimed at peeling Muslim voters away from the GOP, since at the time the growing Muslim-American community leaned toward becoming a Republican constituency.
George W. Bush, in a diplomatic effort, followed Clinton’s practice of holding Iftar dinners because he wanted to prove that the U.S. wasn’t looking to go to war with all of Islam in the wake of the attacks on 9/11/2001 and the subsequent implementation of the war on terror.
Naturally, Barack Obama held them because he had a personal connection to Islam through his childhood, growing up in Indonesia and raised during that time as a Muslim.
But three presidents out of 45 does not make a “tradition.”
In her ahistorical article, Wang also quotes John Quincy Adams who expressed “with an air of fascination” his dinner with the Tunisian envoy, but quotes Adams without also noting that the president thought Islam was a terrible and brutal creed.
What Adams thought about Islam is instructive. For instance, he described Islam as a religion of hate in a piece he wrote in the late 1820s:
The natural hatred of the Mussulmen towards the infidels is in just accordance with the precepts of the Koran. … The fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion is the extirpation of hatred from the human heart. It forbids the exercise of it, even towards enemies. … In the 7th century of the Christian era, a wandering Arab … spread desolation and delusion over an extensive portion of the earth. … He declared undistinguishing and exterminating war as a part of his religion. … The essence of his doctrine was violence and lust, to exalt the brutal over the spiritual part of human nature.
Other prominent Americans at the time also disparaged Islam.
The father of American jurisprudence, Justice Joseph Story, throughly slammed Islam:
Mahomet aimed to establish his pretensions to divine authority, by the power of the sword and the terrors of his government; while he carefully avoided any attempts at miracles in the presence of his followers, and all pretences to foretell things to come. His acknowledging the divine mission of Moses and Christ confirms their authority as far as his influence will go while their doctrines entirely destroy all his pretensions to the like authority. … And now, where is the comparison between the supposed prophet of Mecca, and the Son of God; or with what propriety ought they to be named together? …The difference between these characters is so great, that the facts need not be further applied.
It is true, of course, that the founders intended that Americans should be allowed to practice Islam if they wanted to. There was no thought to outlaw Islam. In fact, some even wrote that Muslims should be allowed to attain political office. After all, we did start the country on the ideal of religious freedom. But no founder felt that Islam was something we should emulate. None felt that Islam had ideas that could be incorporated into the American ethos. And Islam played no part at all in our founding. Those who say it did, such as Barack Obama, are bending over backwards — and illegitimately so — to try and shoehorn Islam into our founding.
After all, it should also be remembered that one of our earliest military actions was against Muslims when Jefferson fought the Barbary Pirates. But historical facts do not seem to enter into the liberal world view.
During several of his Iftar dinners, Barack Obama also regurgitated the nonsense that Islam is part of our founding and that Jefferson held the “first Iftar dinner in the White House.”
No better example of this garbling of the truth can be seen than that in the words of Barack Obama. For his 2012 Iftar dinner celebration, for instance, Obama said the following:
As I’ve noted before, Thomas Jefferson once held a sunset dinner here with an envoy from Tunisia—perhaps the first Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago. And some of you, as you arrived tonight, may have seen our special display, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Congress—the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And that’s a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam—like so many faiths—is part of our national story.
The reference to Jefferson’s so-called Iftar dinner in the 2012 speech was at least a step closer to reality than in the past when he was less equivocal. In 2010 Obama said straight out that Jefferson’s was the first Iftar dinner:
Tonight, we are reminded that Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity. And Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan—making it the first known Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.
But it is historical revisionism to say this. Jefferson’s dinner is neither a sure thing nor a “perhaps.” President Thomas Jefferson simply did not hold any Iftar dinner in the White House, nor did he intend to honor Islam that day. To claim that the very first president to authorize war against Muslims would have hosted a dinner to honor Islam is an absurdity of the first order.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.