Monday, August 13, 2012

Ramadan Reflection

the unity of world religions: Jew, Christian, Muslim, and pagan at prayer
Illustration from the path-breaking multicultural study of religion (1723-43) by Jean Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart

The timing of Ramadan, the Islamic month of reflection and charity, which is just coming to an end, was noteworthy this year because, for the first time since 1980, the holiday coincided with the Olympics.

As Voice of America News reports, the London stadium was moreover constructed in an area with a large Muslim population:
In East London's York Hall, the United Kingdom's largest civil society organization, Citizens UK, organized an Iftar, the evening meal following a day of fasting during Ramadan.  The group has been involved with the London Olympics Organizing Committee and came in part to celebrate the impact the Olympics are having on the community where the main stadiums have been constructed.

The group successfully advocated for a living wage of at least $12 an hour for everyone working at London Olympics jobs, as well as Olympic funding for local schools, hospitals and new affordable housing.

Neil Jameson, the director of Citizens UK says the involvement of the East London Mosque was essential in ensuring the economic development of this ethnically diverse area of the city.

"The East London Mosque is the largest civil society organization in London, 10,000 people worship there.  So we are them, effectively, and tonight we break the fast - non-Muslims and Muslims together - because that makes for a peaceful world and a peaceful Olympics," said Jameson. (full text and video here)
Ramadan moreover posed a special challenge for the 3000 Muslim athletes, who had to decide whether to observe the fast in part or in full. Going without food and drink during the day can make athletic performance more difficult, and the resultant dehydration may complicate drug tests.

Supposedly for health reasons, though apparently for political ones, the Chinese government ordered Uighurs to ignore the holiday: "It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities." Elsewhere, the dilemmas of dissent are different. For instance, in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, observance is compelled rather than prevented. And in many other places, such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority, there is at the least strong social pressure to conform to tradition. As a result, the secular, the self-indulgent, and nicotine-addicted generally keep their backsliding secret. (1, 2). As Diaa Hadid of the Associated Press reports, "a minority in the community goes underground each year during the holy month, sneaking sandwiches and cigarettes when no one is looking."

In the United States the holiday was marked, if not overshadowed, by new debate over religious intolerance, notably the horrific murders in a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb by a white supremacist, and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri—though, in a hopeful sign, a fund drive for reconstruction exceeded its goal in just three days, thanks in part to donations from non-Muslims.

Ramadan interfaith meals have become increasingly common in recent years. (I have had the privilege of attending the one for Amherst residents, sponsored by the Muslim student organization at the University of Massachusetts.) At a White House Iftar dinner yesterday evening, President Obama speculated that the first such gathering held there might have occurred when President Jefferson entertained an envoy from Tunisia. And, with Jefferson's personal Qur'an on display (a loan from the Library of Congress), he pointed out "that Islam -- like so many faiths -- is part of our national story." After citing the contributions of Muslim Americans, he took the opportunity to condemn not only the murders of the Sikhs, but also all "instances of mosques and synagogues, churches and temples being targeted."
So tonight, we declare with one voice that such violence has no place in the United States of America.  The attack on Americans of any faith is an attack on the freedom of all Americans.  (Applause.)  No American should ever have to fear for their safety in their place of worship.  And every American has the right to practice their faith both openly and freely, and as they choose.

That is not just an American right; it is a universal human right.  And we will defend the freedom of religion, here at home and around the world.  And as we do, we’ll draw on the strength and example of our interfaith community, including the leaders who are here tonight.
Some years ago, when Representative Keith Ellison took the oath of office on that same Jefferson Qur'an, the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, with typical mischievousness, pointed out that Jefferson, though the staunchest defender of religious freedom, was no friend of Judeo-Christian revelation, and thus would not have thought much of Islam, either. Drawing an obvious parallel to conflicts in our own day, he noted that Jefferson went to war against the Barbary states of North Africa, who had justified piracy and the enslaving of captives to him on Qur'anic grounds. In fact, Hitchens said, because Jefferson had produced his now-famous New Testament expurgated of all miracles and "superstition," one should extend that principle to its logical conclusion: "Is it not time to apply the razor and produce a reasonable Quran as well?" Not exactly the kind of thing that President Obama would have wanted to call attention to at the dinner. But then, that is not  the purpose of such gatherings.

Is there a connection between American wars abroad and intolerance at home? My colleague, philosopher Falguni Sheth, takes on the question and provocatively asserts that there is an intimate relation, in a piece that was also cited nationally. How does one weigh the danger that some may succumb to bigotry against the objective right or need to speak critically about another belief system or culture or aspects of it? Here, as in other cases, the boundary between legitimate criticism and bigotry can itself become a war zone. Philosopher Russell Blackford takes up that challenge with subtlety but firmness in a post on "Islam, racists, and legitimate debate."

Among the international guests at the Iftar dinner was Israel's Ambassador Michael Oren. The choice may have struck some as unusual, but as someone pointed out in the web conversation last night, he represents a state, 20 percent of whose population is Muslim (80 percent Sunni). When Oren hosted his embassy's Iftar dinner last year,  he said:
It is a world grounded in our holy books. Tonight, of course, is Laylat al-Qadr, the night of the Holy Quran’s revelation. As a student, I spent an entire year reading the Quran and vividly remember how it referred to the Jews as Ahlu al-Kitab—the People of the Book. It says in Sura 29, “Our God and your God is one, and to Him do we submit.” And in Sura 3, the Jews are invited to, “Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides God.”
Similarly, the Bible tells us, in the Book of Psalms, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” And the Book of Proverbs says, fittingly for this Ramadan feast, “Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting, with strife.”
Although the sharing of Muslim and Jewish traditions may strike some outsiders as strange, it is in fact entirely natural, above and beyond the probable connection between Ramadan and Yom Kippur (1, 2). Both religions share a similarly austere and pure monotheism as well as similar dietary regulations. A recent article on a Muslim website usefully surveyed the practices of Halal and Kosher slaughter and found more common points than differences. This year, joint Muslim-Jewish celebrations were perhaps more common because the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av (marking, by tradition, the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed) fell during Ramadan. In one case, Israelis shared their break-fast with Muslim refugees from Sudan. The most unusual celebration involved Israelis and Palestinians meeting in Tekoa, an Israeli town created near the site of the ancient one of that name in historic Judea, nowadays more commonly known as the West Bank. Jerusalem Online reported:
Amongst the diners, [Israeli] shimon, whose brother Asher and Asher’s young son were killed in a terror attack not far from Tekoa. Their car was hit by stones thrown by Palestinians and overturned, killing them both. Shimon says there is no reason they should not gather together. It is strange, he says, that they have grown used to living apart.[Palestinian] Ziad explains that at the beginning of history, one brother killed another, referring to the biblical story of cain and able [sic]. But, he says, here they are extending a hand to peace. Shimon said this endless cycle of violence [sic] and that he believes things should be different.

Rabbi Fruman said he hopes that all around the world, peoples will sit together and break bread like they are doing here and that people will fight together to defeat those obstacles we all have to being human beings.
(full text and video here).

* * *

• In "Jews and Muslims break bread together at iftar feast," Vered Guttman explains the preparation and celebration of the festive meal hosted at the Israel embassy in Washington,  prepared by Palestinian-American chef Mahmud Abulhawa, Haaretz, 16 August 2012
• "US synagogue welcomes Muslims seeking a place to pray," BBC News, 16 August 2012


Huffington Post has been running a live blog of this year's observation of the holiday
New Yorker Slide Show: The Fasts and Feasts of Ramadan, with selections from recent years
• "Ramadan 2012 in Pictures: Beautiful Scenes from the Streets of Muslim Jerusalem" from PolicyMic

Ramadan posts from previous years:

• 2011: Ramadan in Amherst: Celebration of Community and Concerns Over Intolerance
• 2010: Ramadan Kareem! (with some tools for keeping track of non-Christian holidays)

[links updated/fixed]

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