May 6th 2019
AT LEAST since 1805, Western heads of government have been making delicate judgments over how exactly to signal their respect for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. On December 9th of that year, Thomas Jefferson changed the time of a White House dinner from the usual 3.30 pm to “precisely at sunset”. The shift was made to accommodate the religious obligations of a guest from Tunis who was playing an important role in negotiations to free the young republic from the threat of North African pirates.
In more recent times, leaders of the democratic world have taken the period of daybreak-to-dusk abstinence, the latest enactment of which began at sunset on May 5th, as a cue to salute and reassure Muslims everywhere, in their own countries and around the world. Often they attend or host at least one Iftar, the communal meal consumed when darkness falls. Even President Donald Trump and his administration have begun to acknowledge the importance of Ramadan, despite the Islamo-sceptical feelings of many of his supporters.
In 2017, Mr Trump’s first full year in office, both the White House and the State Department broke with the practice of hosting Iftar dinners, and a presidential message of greeting contained the acid assertion that the sacred month “strengthens awareness of our shared obligation to reject violence”. But Mr Trump resumed the practice of hosting a White House Iftar last year (though he was criticised for inviting mainly foreign diplomats rather than Muslim compatriots). Last year’s communication spoke more positively of the “richness” that Islam brought to America’s “religious tapestry”.
This year’s Ramadan salutation was warmer still. In words that might have been taken from a Friday mosque sermon Mr Trump declared: “During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, recite passages from the Quran, and perform benevolent acts of charity and good will towards others. By doing so, they develop a renewed sense of purpose in their own spiritual journey, deepening their appreciation for God’s grace and mercy.”
The American president is not the only Western leader to have used the holy month to counter the impression of being hostile to Islam. In 2015, Canada’s then Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, became the first leader of his country to host an Iftar: this was despite the widespread perception that his party was playing to anti-Muslim sentiment by, for example, banning face veils during citizenship ceremonies. His Liberal successor, Justin Trudeau, has been even warmer in his acknowledgement of Ramadan. In one of the first messages issued by a Western leader this year, he said the fast “honours the values at the heart of Islam, like compassion and service to others”.
In constitutionally secular France, the head of state could hardly stage anything remotely resembling a religious ritual in his own residence. But President Emmanuel Macron made a pointed gesture in 2017 by attending an Iftar laid on by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). He said he wanted to thank Muslim leaders for their support in fighting terrorism. But they were disappointed when he failed to repeat the courtesy last year.
German politicians, too, know how to practise Ramadan diplomacy. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a maiden appearance at the annual Iftar hosted in Berlin by her foreign ministry. She wanted to make the point that the Muslim faith has a place in German life, despite statements to the contrary by members of her own coalition and challengers on the far-right. “It is obvious that Islam is a part of Germany,” she said, knowing that the statement was far from self-evident to many of her compatriots. Two years later, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was invited to the German foreign ministry’s sundown dinner as part of a delicate rapprochement between Berlin and Tehran.
In Britain, where officially organised iftar meals and Ramadan wishes have been standard practice in recent years, the government was a bit slower than usual this year in wishing Muslims well for their month of abstinence. But Theresa May, the prime minister who like Mrs Merkel is a Christian cleric’s daughter, used her Twitter feed to observe that “Ramadan represents the universal values of peace, reflection, devotion and charity”.