If you live in a major U.S. city chances are that you’ve heard of Ramadan, the sacred Islamic month in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Ramadan used to be a strange and unknown religious celebration in the United States a few decades ago. Now, thanks to the negative and positive publicity American Muslims have received in recent years, everybody knows when and why we are fasting. Everyone from the White House to the local church and synagogue is holding interfaith iftar events (breaking of the fast) for their Muslim friends and neighbors. I should be proud and happy that my esoteric religious ritual is no longer looked upon as an undue hardship forced upon me by my religion. That finally the American public is ready and willing to accept me, with my five daily prayers and my fasting and my hijab, as one of them. I should be attending those interfaith iftar events with happiness and fervor. But I’m not.
Mind you, I have nothing against the concept of interfaith events in general or Ramadan events in particular. In fact, I have always been a proponent of interfaith iftar events because they bring together people of different faiths among a common topic: sacrifice for the sake oftheir Creator. We share stories from our scriptures and find many familiar names. We understand what it means to be hungry and thirsty. What’s not to love? I began organizing women’s interfaith iftar meetings at my mosque long before they were in vogue. Now everybody’s doing it.
While my efforts are humble and small, there is one national event that bears significance on a number of levels: the famous White House Iftar, which was boycotted by many Muslim groups this year because of several issues that belie the government’s claim of commitment to religious freedom and plurality. Some of these issues are Gitmo and force feeding; NSA spying of Muslim Americans; and now Gaza. Need I say more? Many Muslims are upset upon being invited to an event that superficially says you are one of us yet treats them as suspicious and second-class citizens in many ways. It’s like ignoring your mother the whole year but taking her out for a treat on Mother’s Day. Since last year this event has been controversial and the controversy seems to be growing, not realizing that the celebration of breaking the fast as a sign of a Muslim’s devotion and sacrifice is being lost in the middle of it all.
Politics aside, what about the smaller interfaith events during Ramadan that I have been a part of for so many years? Here’s the main reason that interfaith iftar events are becoming questionable to me this year. I switchon the television and all I see is war and violence, both by Muslims and other religious groups. Is this the true sentiment of Ramadan? Certainly not. The current deaths in Gaza have made Ramadan even more of a difficult time for Muslims everywhere. We hate to see the pain ofour brothers and sisters in faith, but at the same time we recognize that governments don’t and shouldn’t speak for all people. We should talkabout what’s going onourselves if we are to have any solutions that lead us to peace in the world. Yet when I meet with Christians, Jews or Hindus at small localized interfaith iftar events, we don’t talk about the real issues. We pretend that everything is well with the world and the only topic worth discussing is how well we get along in this United States of America. We discuss abstracts of fasting, or worse, mundane topics that have nothing to do with Ramadan at all.
So this year I’m doing something different; a tiny step that may end up being the biggest step of them all, at least for me. Tonight I plan to attend a break fast event at a Jewish home, a small affair that will bring a few Muslims and Jews together on the intersection of Tzom Tamuzz and Ramadan. I’m ashamed that I know so little about the fasting traditions of the Jews, and I want to change that. Tonight we will talk about why our two faith traditions fast, and what we gain out of it, but more importantly we will talk about the elephant in the room: Israel and Palestine. We will think about how we can be friends when so many expect us, even need us, to be enemies.
But I refuse to be enemies with someone I don’t even know. Someone who has never done any harm to me or my family. If governments throw missiles at each other, does that mean we should all do the same? I don’t believe so. I think in such situations we have an even bigger moral obligation to seek each other out and pray for peace. As a Muslim I believe that God accepts the prayers of a fasting person. I am positive that Jewish tradition teaches the same. So tonight my Jewishneighbors and I will pray and break our fasts together. We will start out as strangers, but will make friends because we refuse to demonize each otherlike the media tells us to. We will share stories and maybe even realize that Judaism and Islam have many more similarities than differences. Will you join me this Tzom Tamuzz/Ramadan?
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.