Photo courtesy of Masood Akhtar

Masood Akhtar, founder of We are Many–United Against Hate, was one of three Wisconsin Muslims invited to celebrate the Eid at the White House this year.

Three Wisconsin Muslims joined more than 300 Muslim Americans May 1 to celebrate the Eid holiday with President Joe and First Lady Jill Biden at the White House. 

Masood Akhtar and Awais Khaleel of Madison, and Reema Ahmad of Milwaukee received the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime invitation, sent to only a select few. The invitation didn’t come with an explanation of why they were chosen, but it did include instructions for COVID and security clearance procedures. (News of the New Jersey mayor whose invitation was retracted for security reasons drew national and international attention.) 

Each of the three rearranged their schedules, purchased a plane ticket and made it through the screenings to attend the celebration. How did they get on the guest list? What was the event like? How did they feel about it? Wisconsin Muslim Journal interviewed each of them to hear their story.

Photo courtesy of Masood Akhtar

Eid at the White House – a brief history

The White House Eid reception dates back to the Clinton administration and continued through the Bush and Obama administrations. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted the first White House Eid celebration in 1997. 

President Donald Trump ended the tradition in 2017, instead posting a brief statement of congratulations to Muslims around the world from himself and the first lady. The Biden administration revived it with a virtual celebration in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and restored the annual White House event in 2022

President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden issued a statement on April 20, extending their “best wishes to Muslim communities across the country and around the world.” (See Biden’s 2023 Eid celebration speech.)

Photo courtesy of Masood Akhtar

U.S. Rep. André D. Carson (Indiana) with Masood Akhtar at the White House Eid celebration.

Madison activist and entrepreneur Masood Akhar 

Madison-resident Masood Akhtar, an Indian-born American Muslim entrepreneur and activist, founded We Are Many-United Against Hate in 2016, after hearing of President Donald Trump’s plans to create a Muslim registry. This statewide, non-partisan movement “teaches forgiveness and peace, addressing the root causes of hate, bigotry and racism, and building inclusive communities while empowering youth,” Akhtar explained in an email to WMJ. Akhtar also served on Dane County’s Immigration and Refugee Task Force, which aimed to build trust between local law enforcement officials and the immigration and refugee communities.  

His work to unite Americans during contentious times drew accolades from local and state organizations and officials, and a variety of groups beyond Wisconsin, including the Biden administration. When Biden hosted the “United We Stand” summit Sept. 15, 2022, Akhtar was among 21 “uniters” from across the nation Biden honored. 

You are no stranger to the White House. Were you surprised by the invitation?

I have been to the White House a number of times, even before President Biden, with President Obama and also under the Bush administration.

Before the Eid celebration was planned, I was in the loop. When the plans were finalized, I got an email saying they were inviting over 300 people to celebrate the Eid at the White House and I was one of them.

What was the day like?

They send us all sorts of instructions, to go early to the COVID testing lab next to the White House. I was there at 6 in the morning. It was very organized. Then we went through security in two or three places.

The event was at 5 p.m. There were no chairs, standing room only. There was a lot of excitement. A guy next to me was a cardiologist who had traveled from Jordan just to attend the event. Rep. Ilhan Omar and other Muslim politicians were there.

President Biden walks in and says, ‘Hey, I’m glad you are here. You are founding members of this country.’ That gives you a warm feeling. He said, ‘We have more Muslims in Congress than ever before. And a lot of Muslims are working in my administration.’

I felt very proud to be an American citizen, proud to be an American Muslim.

Photo courtesy of Masood Akhtar

President Biden receives a copy of “Islam and the English Enlightenment: The Untold Story” by scholar and religious director of Islamic Society of Milwaukee,  Zulfiqar Ali Shah, Ph.D. 

I heard you delivered a book from a friend to President Biden. 

Dr. Zulfiqar Shah, the religious director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, and I had been at an event for Eid at the governor’s mansion the week before. Tony (Gov. Tony Evers) mentioned I would be going to the White House. Dr. Shah had two copies of his book, Islam and the English Enlightenment: The Untold Story in the trunk of his car. He told me, ‘I’ll give one to Gov. Evers. Can you take one with you to the White House?’

I heard the president wouldn’t be taking photos at the event. I was standing next to him when he gave his speech and I was wearing the pin he gave me at the United We Stand Summit in September. He recognized it and said, ‘You’re one of my uniters.’ He asked for my phone and took a photo of us. At the same time, I had the opportunity to give this book to him. I didn’t expect it was going to happen but it did. 

When WMJ asked Dr. Shah what he thought about President Biden having his book, he said, “I am personally indebted and grateful to Br. Masood Akhtar for his activism and civic engagement that made it possible. I hope the president and his advisors will read the book and appreciate the Islamic contributions to America’s founding and intellectual legacy. Hopefully, this will become Br. Masood’s Sadaqah Jariyah (an act of giving that keeps giving).

Awais Khaleel, Dane County Corporation Council and board member of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance

Were you expecting the invitation?

It was a surprise for sure. I actually learned about the invitation a few hours before receiving it. A friend of mine who works within the administration notified me that I would be receiving an email early that morning. He was heavily involved in organizing Muslim Americans across the country during the 2020 elections and I worked closely with him in Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of Awais Khaleel

Awais Khaleel (right) was pleased to see his lifelong friends Rubina and Nasreen Shafi at the White House Eid celebration.

It’s an honor to be invited to the White House for anything, whether it’s a bill signing or a Christmas party, but obviously an Eid celebration, as a Muslim American, is very meaningful to me.

You never know exactly why you’ve been invited but it’s certainly an acknowledgment that you’ve contributed something to our communities and to our society. That means a lot to those of us who work on policy and try to make the world a better place. 

What happened next?

I told my wife. I thought it was amazing and really exciting but I also wondered if I had the time. It was going to be an expensive flight to D.C., flying in two weeks. And I don’t have a lot of paid time off. I had just taken some time off and was preparing to take some more for our family’s Eid holidays. But my wife said, ‘You have to do this. You have to find a way.’ 

I spoke with my boss and he was incredibly supportive. He said the same thing, ‘You have to do this.’

Photo courtesy of Awais Khaleel

Dane County Assistant Corporation Council Awais Khaleel (right) and his family, Wajiha Akhar-Khaleel, Hafsa (4), and Idris (8) met President Joe Biden (center) during Biden’s visit to DeForest in February.

I used some Southwest miles I had saved up. I got a flight from Midway about 5:45 in the morning. I drove down Sunday night and got an affordable hotel, then went to the airport in the morning. I got to D.C. about 9 a.m. And I took the last flight back from D.C. that night and was back to Midway at 10 p.m. I was back at work Tuesday.

Do you know why you were invited?

No one tells you why you’re invited but I was heavily involved in organizing Muslim Americans to support President Biden during the 2020 election. I know I’m on their list of long-term supporters, one who puts in a lot of sweat equity to making sure we get more voters. My best guess is they want to invite people who have demonstrated their support.

I also believe it’s because I’ve been a leader of the Muslim community in Wisconsin for many years. I was one of the founding board members of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance and currently still serve on the board. I am the former chairman of the Wisconsin State Ethics Commission and have had some prominent roles in government in the state.

What was it like to be there?

I was surrounded by all these incredible Muslim American leaders from across the country, people who have contributed so much to America, but also to advancing Muslim American rights and representation. I got to see some good friends I don’t see regularly because they live all over the country.  

What did you think of President Biden’s remarks?

I have listened to President Biden speak ever since the first time I saw him over 20 years ago. He can give a great speech and is very engaged with the audience. His focus was that the White House is for everybody and that is why we were having the celebration there. He said Muslim Americans are an important part of American life. 

Celebrating the Eid in the White House is a big acknowledgement that we are part of America. It was great to hear the President of American and the leader of the free world invite Muslim Americans into the White House, to have this very public event to celebrate a Muslim holiday, especially in an era when hate crimes against Muslim Americans, Asian Americans and people of color are on the rise.

For those of us who are advocating for marginalized communities, fighting for people’s rights and fighting to get people the help they need, we’re constantly pushing against the status quo. That leaves little time for just gratitude and reflection. For me, the whole whirlwind day was an exercise in gratitude and appreciation. It also reminds me that we need to continue to do more.

My wife, kids and I had a chance to meet President Biden briefly when he came to the Madison area after his State of the Union address in February. My daughter who is 4 years old likes to pretend she is a cat. My impression is that it is a coping mechanism when she is feeling some anxiety. So, when we went to meet the president and have our picture taken with him, he asked her, in a loving, grandfatherly way, ‘What’s your name?’

She answered, ‘Meow.’

President Biden meowed back. Then she opened up and started talking. He understood how to build that connection, even with a 4-year-old. That experience with President Biden reminded me of what a fundamentally decent person he is and how important it is to have someone so fundamentally decent leading our country in difficult times.

Photo courtesy of Masood Akhtar

Masood Akhtar (center) with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (right)

Community organizer Reema Ahmad of Milwaukee, Wisconsin State Advisor with Movement Voter Project

Were you surprised to receive the invitation to the White House?

I thought it was spam but I kept getting follow ups to RSVP. I had a chance to confirm with some colleagues and learned it was a legit invitation.

Were you happy to get it?

I’m an organizer and I’m much more used to protesting outside of the White House than being vetted and invited to come inside. So, I really approached the invitation and thought of going with some tension. On a human level, to look up and see someone saying, ‘Well done’ feels really good. 

But I felt torn between feeling good that my many, many years of work resulted in being acknowledged in this way and seen in the highest levels of government, and my sense of accountability to the communities I come from in the grassroots. 

I don’t want to be complicit in this administration’s failure to follow through on some of the issues they campaigned on. The fact that we don’t yet have student debt relief is important to some of my peers and to me. What we are seeing at the border right now with Title 42 ending confirms that my personal politics are left of this administration. 

We all came together in 2020 to vote against Trump and remove this deeply harmful person from public office. But I struggle with how to go back to our communities next year and encourage folks to show up for a president many may feel has not done enough for them. I say this knowing President Biden has done some incredible things and not enough people know about them. The infrastructure bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, is huge. Millions and millions of dollars are going to local municipalities to help with everything from public transportation to schools and much more. It’s an incredible stimulus bill and certainly a major hook on which Biden can hang his hat.  

There are real struggles people are facing and some policy decisions this administration is making does make it hard to be enthusiastic about a second run. I checked in with some mentors of mine and grassroots leaders I’ve worked closely with across the country, people who I align with politically and values wise, just to gut check how to approach it. 

I thought this might be an opportunity for accountability. I prepared comments in case I actually had the opportunity to speak with the president or vice president, to be able to share some of the challenges people from our communities are still facing.

We’re in a place right now where Muslim Americans all across the country, in civil society, in politics, in every sector are “irrefutable and undeniable,” as one African American artist said about Black Americans. You cannot deny our presence any longer. We’re not just here to give to campaigns and then step away. We have needs. We have power. We are part of this broad, Progressive coalition. We have to be active members, too. I wanted to honor that. I wanted to be able to speak to the issues.

What was it like to be there?

It was a celebration with all these Muslims from across the country. 

Awais Khaleel of Madison and Reema Ahmad of Milwaukee

Photos courtesy of Awais Khaleel

As you were walking, getting closer to the space, you saw Muslims and they were dressed up. I ended up seeing so many former colleagues and friends, people I have not seen in years. 

As a Palestinian person (because that’s the other backdrop, this event happened as the rise of the far right and fascism in Israel is targeting Palestinians and we are seeing the bombing of innocent civilians), it felt really important to be seen there as Palestinian and unapologetic. Other Palestinians leaders, elected officials and civil servants were there and we were wearing our keffiyehs. 

Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American congresswoman, was there with her mother. Political activist Linda Sarsour was there. It was another reminder that our presence can’t be denied. We’re not going away. We will continue to push this administration to do better.

Why do you think you were invited?

That’s a good question. Plenty of people who do incredible work that frequently goes below the radar. But it’s no secret that Wisconsin is a really important state when it comes to federal elections and the electoral map. I’ve done a lot of work not only in grassroots organizing but specifically in creating a funding environment where grassroots organizations can thrive across the Midwest and the country.

Photos courtesy of Masood Akhtar

I’m really proud that over the last five years, I’ve helped seed and resource some of the most well-known and instrumental grassroots organizations in the Wisconsin Progressive ecosystem. The fact that we won the Supreme Court race this year is not to be taken lightly. Grassroots groups across the state turned out big to bring forward this victory. I know the Democratic Party at the highest levels was deeply invested in this race. We need a pro-democracy judge if we don’t want the undermining of the people’s vote come 2024. 

Are you glad you went?

I am, especially for the opportunity to deepen connections and relationships with others doing this work. 

It feels like we have been going full speed for at least the last six years, after the unimaginable happened in 2016. In the beginning of 2017, it was all about organizing, mobilizing and coalition building. Then came the 2018 midterms and our work to reject candidates who aligned with the 45th president and his policies, ousting Scott Walker and finally, in 2020, ousting Donald Trump. 

In Wisconsin, we were not only part of that victory, but the critical piece, the tipping point. Then to defend the election, and in 2022, to hold on to the governor’s seat. And this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. We’ve been pushing beyond the point of burnout because every election feels like do or die. 

To have some space to breathe and be in community with other folks, and to have a little break to celebrate, was really nice.