Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
December 1, 1998 | Khayat, Abdullah
What used to be a routine annual interfaith breakfast hosted by the president of the United States during the Labor Day weekend gained added and special meaning this year because of the denials, falsehoods and begrudging admissions of William Jefferson Clinton regarding his personal moral behavior. Starting in January of this year with reports of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the president’s own interpretation of what constituted sex, and subsequent disclosures from the Office of the Special Prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, that rebutted him, the country has been subjected day in and day out to the lurid details. All this has also been on the Internet and has reached the whole world via satellite television.

It was under these circumstances that President Clinton invited community leaders and men of God from different faiths to join him in a prayer breakfast.
However, the White House invitation posed a serious dilemma for Muslim leaders across the board. Some of those invited stayed away from Washington. Others arrived in town but then huddled together to discuss the implications of their attendance at the breakfast meeting.
They debated whether their presence at the White House could be exploited as condoning the president’s behavior. Some were willing to honor the invitation but would not make any public statement on the subject. Others decided to forego the breakfast meeting.
Among those who were invited but did not attend the breakfast were Warith Dean Mohammed, leader of the largest African-American Muslim organization; Jameel El Ameen, imam of a chain of mosques in and around Atlanta; and Seraj Wahaj, an activist and imam from New York. Representatives from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) also excused themselves.
Other Muslim leaders, however, did attend the White House breakfast. There they saw that President Clinton, in Jimmy Swaggart style, acknowledged on national television with teary eyes that he had “sinned” and sought the forgiveness of the nation. At the prayer breakfast he also, for the first time, directly apologized to Monica Lewinsky and her family.
At the time of the breakfast, public opinion polls showed that Clinton’s character rating had gone down considerably, but his performance as a president remained high.
The invitations, which would have been greatly welcomed a few years ago, instead confronted the growing Muslim community in America with a difficult choice. As it is, given their adherence to the tenets of Islam, which in fact impose a distinct lifestyle, American Muslims have been carefully tiptoeing their way through the permissive society that surrounds them. The charges against Bill Clinton, therefore, have posed a serious challenge. The issue is one of morality, but it is loaded with legal and political ramifications.
With their growing numbers and self-awareness, the Muslim leadership in America has been seriously studying ways to enter the political mainstream and to make a difference for the better in the electoral process. The question of the breakfast invitations demonstrated that entering the American political scene may pose a whole new set of problems even more difficult than those Muslims already have overcome in simply deciding to participate.

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