Ramadan Fast Brings Hill Unity

Posted September 23, 2008 at 4:44pm

As millions of Muslim Americans observe Ramadan, the monthlong remembrance of the period when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, they engage in fasting and prayer not entirely unlike that practiced by Christians and Jews during Lent and Yom Kippur.

For Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), recognizing the similarities among these faiths is a way of promoting understanding.

“It’s a point of commonality,” he said. By understanding the practices and beliefs of other faiths, “maybe we can build bridges and knock down walls.”

It is in this spirit of understanding that the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association is hosting its third annual Congressional iftar Wednesday evening. The iftar — the traditional evening meal for breaking the Ramadan fast — is part of an ongoing effort by the organization to foster understanding about the Islamic faith and the Muslim community in America.

“We’re still under the microscope consistently, and not always for the right reasons,” said J. Saleh Williams, a member of the organization who has been heavily involved in planning the iftar.

It’s important, he said, to let people know that Muslim Americans want the same things as everyone else, including a strong country, solid educational system, civic engagement and the chance to contribute to society.

“It’s an event for the privilege and benefit of Congressional staffers and Members,” he said. “We’re actively engaged as American citizens. We’re here as a resource.”

The holy month of Ramadan commemorates the revealing of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed and is marked by fasting and prayer.

More than 350 people are expected at the open event, where they will hear from Ellison and Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), as well as a local imam, or mosque leader, who will discuss the meaning of the holiday.

After these speeches, the imam will lead a prayer for Muslims in a separate room, while Members and staffers will have the opportunity to mingle with representatives from various embassies, including those from Bahrain, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates, which are sponsoring the event. The embassies are providing foods from their countries, meant not only as savory dishes with which to break the fast, but also to demonstrate the unique aspects of Muslim countries.

“It highlights the diversity of the Muslim world,” said Assad Akhter, president of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association. “Muslim majority countries are more spread out” than most people realize.

Williams also emphasized this, saying it’s important to get people to not always immediately associate “Muslim” and “Arab” because there are growing numbers of Muslims in non-Arab countries.

For the embassies, being involved gives them a chance to talk with people and educate them about their countries.

“It shows we are trying to build bridges of cooperation,” said Abdullah Alsaboosi, head of the political section at the United Arab Emirates embassy. “It’s a good opportunity for us to share. It’s us cooking food in our home and bringing it to them.”

Husain M. Almahmood, a representative from Bahrain’s embassy, said he is looking forward to answering questions about his country and discussing various issues with Members and staffers, while giving them a feel for what the holiday is about.

“Normally, back home, the family and friends, we get together” for the meal, he said. And this is a way to share that with a larger community.

Although it is not the only iftar being held in Washington this month — the Treasury Department and the United States Agency for International Development are among the other offices hosting similar events, according to Akhter — it is likely the most informal, which is how CMSA wants it.

“It’s become almost a trendy kind of thing,” Akhter said. “We kind of have an open-tent policy. We’re not worrying too much about formality.”

According to Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, developing deeper connections and understanding between the Muslim community and the government is essential.

“Government cannot work in pursuing public safety and national security alone, and [the Muslim community] cannot work on those things alone,” he said.

Particularly important is engaging larger numbers of young Muslims in conversations about politics and policy in a way that they are part of the discussions, rather than outside it. “They want people to talk to them, not about them,” he said.

Al-Marayati cautioned that because many young Muslims feel that they are consistently looked at as a suspect group, their frustration turns into a radicalization of their beliefs.

He added that Muslims are an “authentic source” for the government to gain a better understanding of their faith and backgrounds, as they seek to convince the public that Islam is a “religion that promotes the theme of life.”

The iftar will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building.