Muslims promoting interfaith relations during Ramadan
Starting today, Muslims throughout North America will face nearly 16-hour days of fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a time of self-purification, self-restraint and inner reflection for Muslims, who abstain from food and drink and other sensual pleasures during daylight hours.
During the month, believers focus on piety, charity and self-improvement.
This Ramadan, however, many suburban Muslims are reflecting on how far they have come as a community in the 10 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sullied the image of the religion practiced by nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide.
On that ill-fated Tuesday, 19 al-Qaida terrorists hijacked and flew two commercial jet airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon, and crashed a fourth headed toward Washington, D.C., in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people -- mostly civilians -- from more than 70 countries, shocked the world, and shook the Muslim community to its core.
Some community leaders view Sept. 11 as a wake-up call that prompted Muslims to come out of their shell. It spurred more interfaith dialogue and outreach efforts, often held during Ramadan, as a means of breaking down barriers and improving relationships with non-Muslims.
"I think we started soul searching," said Zaher Sahloul, a member of the Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview and chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. "This is the largest terrorist act which happened to our country. There is a lot of grief, which we share with any other American. And it's also painful that people associate this act of terror with the Muslim community."
Over the years, controversies surrounding a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, a Florida pastor's incitement to burn the Quran, and the recent anti-Islamic shooting rampage by a Christian extremist in Norway have fanned the flames of prejudice, he added.
"We have a very active industry of hate groups or Islamophobes spreading that Islam is not compatible with democracy, modernity, and freedom or Western values in general," Sahloul said.
To counter such hatred on the grass-roots level, local mosques started opening their doors to non-Muslims hosting interfaith Ramadan iftars -- fast-breaking meals Muslims eat at sundown, inviting civic and religious leaders to participate.
"The initial reaction was more openness and civic engagement with people of other religions and groups," Sahloul said. "I think we are moving in the right direction in spite of the fact that you have right now a more negative perception of Islam than at the time of 9/11."
The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, which is an umbrella group for 56 Islamic organizations in Chicago and the suburbs, has launched a campaign, "Together for a Better America," and is urging its members to have remembrance dinners during Ramadan honoring the victims and first responders of Sept. 11.
As part of the campaign, the council also is encouraging Muslims to participate in municipal and township planning of Sept. 11 commemorative events. The campaign will culminate Sept. 10 with a gathering of religious, interfaith and civic leaders honoring the victims and first responders.
FBI reaches out
Such events have offered law enforcement officials an opportunity to build relationships within the diverse Muslim community, Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said.
"We made a concerted effort since 9/11 to reach out to the Muslim communities in Chicago and suburbs to make sure they are aware that we are there to protect their rights and civil liberties," Rice said. "There are still people who are suspicious of the law enforcement community. Some stereotypes and perceptions are tough to change."
Rice said the FBI will host its own Ramadan iftar this month and partake in many such dinners at area mosques. The agency also invites Muslim community leaders, as well as members of other ethnic groups, businesses, and media to participate in its yearly Citizen's Academy, he added.
"We reach out as best we can to all ethnic and religious groups, not just Muslims," he said. "I think we have a lot more understanding and a lot of trust with many members of the Muslim community. We have a much better knowledge and understanding of the Islamic faith."
Rice said soon after Sept. 11, the agency saw a spike in the number of hate crimes and civil rights complaints being filed by members of the Muslim community.
"It's dropped significantly," he said.
Visibility has helped as suburban Muslims become more active in the communities where they live, giving to local charities, volunteering on boards and commissions, running for public office and mobilizing on issues that are not ethnocentric.
"We are still a young community," Sahloul said. "The history of Muslims in America is not more than 30 years or so. The majority is still an immigrant community. We have problems related to integration. We have problems related to image."
Muslims not the first
The trials the Muslim community has faced since Sept. 11 have certain parallels with the Jewish immigrant experience in America, though not quite so severe, said Michael Balinsky, secretary of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis.
"The Muslim community has not faced the same kinds of discrimination," Balinsky said referring, for example, to a time when Jewish doctors were not allowed to practice at regular hospitals, prompting the creation of Jewish hospitals. "There is genuine anti-Islamic sentiment out in the general community. It's important the communities know each other and talk to each other."
Balinsky said while interfaith dialogue is helpful, it's the interaction of regular folk that makes all the difference.
"Those are really important on a very human level because faces are put to the community," he said. "The issues become people, and that complicates things in a healthy way."
One-on-one interactions have gone a long way toward changing perceptions about the community, said Ghulam Farooqie, president of the Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines.
"We were open since the day we established in 1989," Farooqie said.
Farooqie believes that's why members of his mosque community did not experience any retaliation or hate crimes after Sept. 11. On that day nearly 10 years ago, a local synagogue and church sent a flower bouquet to the mosque and "told us not to worry," he said.
Farooqie said after Ramadan, he plans to have an open house at the mosque where members invite their neighbors and friends.
"My message to the people, all the time, is to behave like Muslims, act like Muslims (following) what Islam teaches you. Don't disturb the neighbors, and talk to them. Have more patience and more tolerance," he said.
Ramadan factsRamadan, a month of obligatory daily fasting for Muslims begins Monday, Aug. 1. It is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
• Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam prescribed in the Quran as a means for self-purification.
• Muslims begin the daily fast at first light of dawn after having a pre-dawn meal known as "suhur." Fasting ends at sunset with a special evening meal known as "iftar."
• During daylight hours, Muslims also are required to abstain from sex, smoking, and other sensual pleasures.
• The elderly, those who are sick or on a journey, and women who are pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast and make up days missed later in the year. If physically unable to fast, every Muslim must feed a needy person for every day of fasting missed.
• In special nightly prayers called "Taraweeh," the entire Quran is recited in mosques each day of the holy month starting today (Sunday).
• Ramadan ends with a day long celebration known as Eid ul-Fitr. This year Eid will fall on Aug. 30 (depending on moon sighting).
• Eid ul-Fitr begins with a special morning prayer attended by men, women and children in their new or best clothes. A special charity, known as Zakat ul-Fitr is given out before the prayer to feed the poor. The day is marked by feasting, visiting relatives and friends, and giving gifts.
Source: Daily Herald research