Non-Muslims Who Fast During Ramadan
by Daniel Pipes
In the aftermath of 9/11, one sees an outpouring of sympathy and goodwill for Muslims, especially in the United States. One manifestation is a sharing of the Ramadan fast vigors. This blog collects some of the more colorful examples of this trend:
We start with Patricia McBee of Philadelphia, 54 and a Quaker: the Philadelphia Inquirer explains how she decided to show her solidarity with Muslims by wearing an Islamic-style headscarf as well as a message pinned to her chest explaining that she does so "in solidarity with the women in New York and Washington and in Afghanistan who are in mourning." She's currently on her second day of fasting for Ramadan but is not sure she can keep it up. She fasts in conjunction with the decision of the Metropolitan Christian Council, which urged churches to set aside a day for fasting, to contribute to relief efforts, and to reach out to local mosques. (November 18, 2001)
Oct. 25, 2003 update: So, what are coalition forces planning to do for their first Ramadan in Iraq, which begins Monday, Oct. 27, 2003? The Associated Press reports today that they will be very respectful:
No eating, drinking or smoking in public: That word is going out to American soldiers in Iraq as Muslims prepare to observe the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. During Ramadan, expected to begin Sunday, Muslims are supposed to abstain from food, drink, cigarettes and sex during daylight hours. It is a time for reflection, when religious feelings run strong.
The U.S.-led coalition is clearly concerned that those feelings could erupt into violence against American troops by religious Iraqis deeply offended that their country will be spending Ramadan under military occupation by non-Muslims. "We have made sure all our forces are well aware of the implication of Ramadan," said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. and coalition troops. "We're making sure our forces clearly understand what the traditions are, and what the sensitivities are to make sure that we're being respectful of the Iraqi people."
To that end, American and other allied troops have been attending "cultural sensitivity" classes, where instructors, mostly chaplains, explain Islamic traditions and the meaning of the Islamic holy month. "We don't want our soldiers to challenge any of those social customs or taboos or religious practices out of ignorance," said Lt. Col. Chester C. Egert, a chaplain with the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul.
And not just that, the news item continues:
Some of the troops have taken the sensitivity training to heart. Sgt. John Gainey, who admits he knew "absolutely nothing" about Ramadan, is considering fasting for a day himself, just so he can relate to the Iraqi experience. "It will give me further insight into why Muslims fast," he said. "It will be a good gesture for the Muslim people."
Reflections: (1) This is probably the most "culturally sensitive" occupation of a country in all of recorded history. (2) It is not likely to be rewarded with reciprocal good will. (3) Sgt. John Gainey appears to be on his way to converting to Islam, and he's probably not the only American soldier going down that path. (4) This is not the first time the U.S. military has bent over backwards to accommodate Islamic customs: Who could ever forget the government-issued abayas for female personnel in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s? And to this day, there remains a ban on bibles, erotica, pork, and hops going to soldiers deployed in CENTCOM's region. (October 25, 2003)
Nov. 11, 2003 update: In a related development, IslamOnLine reports today that DePaul University of Chicago, the second largest Catholic university in the United States, has provided nearly $3,000 in funding for the school's Muslim Student Association to sponsor iftars (dinners to break the fast).
Nov. 19, 2003 update: U.S. soldiers in Iraq are not the only American Christians experimenting with the Ramadan fast; they are joined by university students. The Palm Beach Post reported yesterday on the first Ramadan Fast-a-thon at Florida Atlantic University, "a one-day fast that included more than 100 students of all faiths," which had the dual purpose "to raise awareness and contributions for the Daily Bread Food Bank in West Palm Beach." Sujith John, a senior and a Christian reflected on the day's exertion: "It's not only about giving up food and water. It's about cleansing yourself." Meanwhile, at the University of Minnesota, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, the second annual Ramadan Fast-A-Thon took place, with the same dual purpose. Commented Cristina Edelstein, a senior and a Christian, on the experience: "This has been cool tonight. It's how God works, establishing communication between people." The similarity in these projects is no coincidence; the Muslim Student Association, a North American Islamist organization active on campuses, promotes the Fast-a-thon idea at a website. MSA reports that thirty campuses hosted Fast-A-Thon events in 2002, its first year of existence; Google's news search shows thirty items for 2003, suggesting that the program got off to a quick start but has since stalled.
Dec. 3, 2003 update: It's one thing for the Muslim Student Association to sponsor Ramadan Fast-A-Thons and quite another for the public schools of the State of California to do the same. Lowell Ponte notes in today's FrontPageMag.com that Len Cesene, a seventh grade world history teacher in Covina, California, outside of Los Angeles, recently sent the following note home with his students:
ROYAL OAK INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL
Dear Parents or Guardian,
As part of the world history curriculum, your student has recently been studying the rise of Islam and the teachings of Mohammed. Fundamental to the Muslim religion are the Five Pillars of Islam. They emphasize the "word of God," prayer, charity for the poor, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from food or drink during daylight hours.
In an attempt to promote a greater understanding and empathy towards the Muslim religion and toward other culture, I am encouraging students to participate in an extra credit assignment. Students may choose to fast for one, two or three days. During this time, students may only drink water during daylight hours.
Once fasting is completed, students are to type a ½ page summary of their experience. They should describe how it felt to go without food during the day and connect it to the theme of sacrifice. Fasting is inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable, many religions to consider it an important sacrifice.
I wish to emphasize that this is an EXTRA CREDIT assignment and is by no means mandatory. For those unable to fast, they may choose to type a 2 page paper in which they compare different religions that encourage sacrifice during the year. I give my son or daughter permission to fast for one, two or three days.
Final papers for either project are due by wed. November 26th.
Student signature Parent signature
Far from this being a rogue assignment, Ponte points out, "Cesene was merely carrying out the statewide educational policy direction of the State of California. He was extending the pro-Islamic lessons in textbooks that have been used in California, Alabama, and many individual public school districts."
In response, I endorse what the local San Gabriel Valley Tribune argued in its editorial, "Assignment to fast out of line":
Oct. 12, 2004 update: A new Ramadan season means some Christians start fasting. One of the first out of the box is Rob Davis, a Mormon and the police chief of San Jose, Calif.. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Davis was speaking to 7,000 Muslims last year during Ramadan and he realized that the vast crowd, unlike he, was hungry. "It just dawned on me, if I am truly going to understand the nuances of this religion, I should join them in this fast." He plans an iftar each night this year at his home with a different Muslim family as his guests.
Oct. 13, 2004 update: In an editorial, the Mercury News finds that the Ramadan gesture by Davis "promotes one of Silicon Valley's most treasured qualities -- respect for a range of religious and cultural experiences."
Oct. 25, 2004 update: According to the Islamic Cultural Centre at the London Central Mosque, the commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, Sir John Stevens, visited the ICC today and broke "his special Ramadhan fast at an ICC dinner."
Nov. 6, 2004 update: Holly Lebowitz Rossi of Religion News Service reports that "some non-Muslims, particularly college students, have learned about the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the holy month and are adopting the practice of fasting themselves. Reasons range from hunger awareness to a statement of political solidarity to a desire to practice a spiritual discipline." She then gives the example of Cindy Thoman-Terlazzo of York, Penn., a Unitarian Universalist who is fasting for all three reasons. Rossi notes that non-Muslims who fast during Ramadan usually do so in conjunction with a local Muslim community effort, and that the Ramadan Fast-A-Thon is one of the most organized of these efforts. Started in 2001 by a University of Tennessee-Knoxville student, Sanjana Ahmad, the Ramadan Fast-A-Thon in 2003 involved 9,300 non-Muslims and raised $46,000 for charities. This year, it is active at nearly 150 colleges.
Sep. 16, 2005 update: A new Ramadan and a new initiative, this one from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a "a wonderful new nationwide initiative titled 'Sharing Ramadan'."
A 13-page "Resource Guide 2005," then gives exact guidelines how to do this, from the media advisory (complete with manufactured quotes), to the guest list, to the invitation letter that warns about men and women sitting separately, to the mix of foods, to the substance of the occasion ("Be sure to have displays and make presentations about Islam and Muslims"). CAIR has thought the whole event through for you.
Oct. 5, 2005 update: Carol Wolman describes herself as a "lifelong peace activist" who "is actively working to impeach Bush and Cheney." From this far-left perch, she also advocates non-Muslims fasting for Ramadan. In an article titled "Why Americans should observe Ramadan: Dissociate from the Bush regime, join the ummah," she explicitly posits Islam as a way for anti-Americans to reject their country.
Right after her advocating conversion to Islam, Wolman connects this to her political differences with U.S. foreign policy:
As though not quite understanding what she has just advocated, Wolman then quotes Psalm 86: 9, links to a Peacemakers Bible Study group, and signs off with "In the name of the Prince of Peace."
Oct. 17, 2005 update: Kharman Aidun, a Zoroastrian student reporter at La Voz Weekly (a publication of De Anza College in Cupertino, California) decided to go the whole way for Ramadan, moving in with a Muslim friend, wearing a hijab, waking for the 5 a.m. prayers, praying five times a day, and (of course) fasting during the daylight hours during. Her conclusion? "I gained insight I would not have had otherwise by immersing myself in this culture for only one week."
Oct. 27, 2005 update: Fr. Labib Kobti, founder of Al-Bushra in San Francisco, an "Arab American Roman Catholic Community," has started "Ramadan Fasters of Christ" a program for American Christians to keep the Ramadan fast. As he explains:
Then comes the political twist:
The fast will be undertaken for reasons of political solidarity:
Comment: It is noteworthy how many different motivations can inspire non-Muslims to fast during Ramadan.
Dec. 8, 2005 update: A scathing editorial today in the Globe and Mail brings another Ramadan-solidarity-fast to my attention. The editorial notes how Hassan Almrei, "an admitted passport forger and that there is good reason to believe he is a holy warrior who espouses Osama bin Laden's murderous philosophy," has won a celebrity following in Canada:
A reader notes that Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada has sponsored an "International Ramadan Solidarity Fast."
Oct. 3, 2006 update: U.S. troops are spending their fourth Ramadan in Iraq and the practice of abstaining from food and drink has, according to a report posted at JihadWatch.org clearly become more official. "Don't you know it's Ramadan?" is an account by a soldier at a weekly meeting somewhere in Iraq.
Oct. 9, 2006 update: Another Ramadan, another opportunity for non-Muslims to keep the Muslim fast. This year, Pax Christi USA, a left-wing Roman Catholic group announced that thousands of its members are fasting for Ramadan as a gesture to soothe tensions following Pope Benedict XVI's quote of a Byzantine emperor saying that Islam is "evil and inhuman." Likewise, a leftist group (unnamed) in Ann Arbor, Mich. has organized a "solidarity fast" of three-day shifts for the entire 30 days of Ramadan to demonstrate its opposition to the U.S. fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sgt. Jeremy Pitcher, a spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, says that dozens of American service members in Iraq's Al-Anbar province are fasting as "a gesture of good will, a gesture of respect for the nation of Iraq, for the culture of Iraq."
Finally, the collegiate Fast-a-thon claims to have spread to more than 250 U.S. campuses this year.
Oct. 11, 2006 update: One of those campuses is Indiana University, where a news report in the Indiana Daily Student reports that 600-700 people have signed up for the Fast-a-thon and 200-300 people are expected at the iftar dinner. Its slogan is "Go hungry for a day so someone else won't have to," the logic of which somewhat escapes me. But what is most noteworthy is that, for each student participant, some local businesses, primarily restaurants, reportedly have agreed to donate money to a community kitchen.
June 12, 2007 update: A feature story by Michael Y. Park, "Islamberg: A Terror Compound in New York ... or Misunderstood Neighbors?" takes a look at the 70-acre compound in which more than 100 Muslims live in seclusion located in Deposit, N.Y., at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. In the course of detailing the relations between Islamberg and the townspeople, Park writes that post-9/11 suspicions of the compound caused a notable cooling. Then this:
Sep. 25, 2007 update: "Area businesses have promised to donate money for every non-Muslim student who agrees to fast during the daylight hours of October 6, 2007," reports the University of Pennsylvania MSA. Interesting that the donations are only for non-Muslims.
Oct. 21, 2007 update: Fast-a-thon claims that "Over 280 Schools Worldwide Held Fast-a-thons in 2007!"
Aug. 28, 2008 update: If Islamists have their way, non-Muslims won't have a choice about observing the rules of Ramadan, writes Ted Jeory, "Hard to Swallow: Town Hall bid to extend Ramadan fast to non-Muslims fuels row." The town councilors in Tower Hamlets, an area in East London, received an e-mail outlining arrangements for Town Hall committee meetings over the next month, during Ramadan. Jeory explains:
Sep. 9, 2008 update: Hindus are also joining the fast, comes a brief report from Bombay about Bollywood friends Feroz Lakadwala and Vivek Abrol. Feroz keeps the fast and other rituals of Ramadan, despite a grueling schedule: "Ramadan is very important. I have to answer to the Almighty," he says. Vivek plans to observe the fast as well. The reporter concludes that "Vivek and Feroz are the new faces of modern India proving that festivals like Ramadan often help bridge the religious divide."
Sep. 10, 2008 update: The French television station France24 finds a whole pattern of "Christians observing Ramadan." In some cases, the motive is mainly to please a lover or spouse:
Jean-Pierre Malvis, a 32-year-old French engineer, observes Ramadan for a day or two as a sign of "solidarity and respect for his wife."
Aug. 21, 2009 update: Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to eat, drink, or smoke in the presence of Palestinians, particularly at security crossings, during the fasting hours of Ramadan. Aug. 9, 2010 update: The same goes in 2010, Arutz 7 reports:
Sep. 4, 2009 update: London Mayor Boris Johnson wants non-Muslims to fast on Ramadan the better to understand their "Muslim neighbor," he announced during a visit to the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre. "I urge people, particularly during Ramadan, to find out more about Islam, increase your understanding and learning, even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbour and break your fast at the local mosque. I would be very surprised if you didn't find that you share more in common than you thought."
Sep. 10, 2009 update: About a dozen faculty faculty and 100 students medical school students at the University of Michigan participated in the Muslim Medical Students Association's Fast-A-Thon so that, as present and future physicians, they wanted better to understand how Ramadan fasting affects the lives of Muslim patients. "In terms of understanding the science and the physical effects of fasting, that's something we can learn in lecture. Of course, we know what happens to a person's glucose levels when they don't eat for several hours," said Jess Guh, a student. "As a provider, this helps us understand better why it would be important enough for one of our patients to do this."
Sep. 14, 2009 update: David Rusin considers this phenomenon today at "Non-Muslims Join the Ramadan Fast." He also provides information on another case:
Sep. 15, 2009 update: One can go to an "Abrahamic Faiths Iftar," also called an "Interfaith Iftar," this evening at Harvard.
Comment: I wonder when Harvard's first interfaith Lent or Yom Kippur will take place.
Sep. 18, 2009 update: The "Home Office Islamic Network," a group of UK Home Office staffers, issued a five-page information sheet on the etiquette of Ramadan that the Department distributed and posted on the its internal internet, giving it official endorsement. The document includes this statement: "In practical terms, please be sensitive when eating lunch near a Muslim colleague who is fasting. This can make an individual feel hungrier and make it more challenging to observe the fast."
Comment: Or, in the Daily Mail's more explicit headline, "Don't eat near Ramadan fasters, Home Office staff told."
Jan. 5, 2011 update: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police may be the most politically-correct police force in the Western world. Brian Lilley reports two items for the Toronto Sun:
First, the RCMP's community outreach office in Ottawa called an emergency meeting of its cultural diversity consultative committee on Aug. 26, 2010 and Cpl. Wayne Russett wrote a memo in anticipation that included this directive:
Second, this meeting was called because RCMP investigators had the audacity to search through homes, computers and seized equipment of three terror suspects (Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, Misbahuddin Ahmed, and Khurram Syed Sher) on Aug. 25, which happened to fall during Ramadan. The trio, Lilley reports, "were charged with several terrorism-related offences in a plot the Mounties say was aimed at launching a terrorist attack in Canada and supporting terrorism abroad."
Not only did Cpl. Russett hold more than a dozen meetings with Muslim groups in Ottawa, visiting mosques and community centers, eating several iftars along the way, but RCMP and Ottawa police officials apologized about the arrests taking place during Ramadan. As Russett wrote to François Bidal, commanding officer of the RCMP's National Capital Region, "We have been actively engaging the local Muslim Communities and will continue to do so in an attempt to neutralize and elevate any issues of concern." Jan. 6, 2011 update: Happily, Prime Minister Stephen Harper intervened with some adult supervision: "the general approach that this government would expect to see is that the law, our important laws, are enforced every day of the year."
July 14, 2011 update: The Council on American-Islamic Relations has published a 16-page Sharing Ramadan Resource Guide 2011 that urges "local mosques, community centers and Islamic schools [to] take this opportunity to invite their neighbors to join them for a meal during an iftar."
July 16, 2011 update: Although generally well disposed towards CAIR, Imam Luqman Ahmad of Sacramento slams it for the Sharing Ramadan idea in his long (and not quite proofread) post, "CAIR's 'Sharing Ramadan' Campaign: Well intended? Maybe. Bad Idea? Definately!" In brief:
Aug. 3, 2011 update: In an ugly manifestation of this same urge to get non-Muslim fasting on Ramadan, comes word from the Hamas affiliated Ar-Risala website that Gilad Shalit, an Israeli hostage of Hamas since June 25, 2006, is fasting. As reported by the Ma'an News Agency:
July 19, 2012 update: Two unusual aspects make the Minneapolis-St. Paul mosque effort to include non-Muslims in the Ramadan celebrations. First, they are invited only to take part in the breaking-of-the-fast meals, which is the easy part. Second, the Minnesota Council of Churches is encouraging participation and helping organize the meals. Here is Gail Anderson, a director with the Council of Churches, in a released statement: "Last year more than 350 guests attended an Iftar during Ramadan. We hope this year will be even bigger. We hope that people who have never had an opportunity to visit a mosque before will come join us for dinner at a mosque in their neighborhood."
July 20, 2012 update: The Federation of Netherlands Trade Unions (Federation Van Nederlandse Vakbonden or FNV) is organizing a free iftar for all members this Ramadan.
July 21, 2012 update: CAIR's Philadelphia office is promoting a " Community Ramadan Event" which consists of "A special Iftar dinner under a tent in Center City Philadelphia." It explains:
Note the church participating.
July 29, 2012 update: In Dallas, United Methodist Rev. Wess Magruder is observing the fast for the whole of Ramadan, including its non-food aspects, has decided to "act like a Muslim," is breaking the fast at iftars with Muslims, and is blogging about the experience.
Aug. 14, 2012 update: A report from Amsterdam, about the police commissioner's new tradition of hosting a huge iftar:
July 10, 2013 update: The Minneapolis Star Tribune gets the 2013 round of non-Muslim-who-fast-for-Ramadan started with a report about an iftar for twenty in a Woodbury apartment complex that included almost half non-Muslims:
This fits into a larger pattern:
Nov. 24, 2013 update: For a the related phenomenon of non-Muslim women donning Islamic headwear, see "Students take hijab challenge" by Esra Hashem reporting on the Muslim Student Association's "Hijab Challenge," at Fresno State.
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