Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ramadan and religious pluralism in U.S.

In the Islamic religion, observance of the holy month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.  During this time, Muslims avoid eating or drinking from dawn to sunset each day as a way to cleanse the soul and to have empathy with those who are less fortunate.

Ramadan is a time of self-reflection and prayer, a time of self-restraint, as well as a time to focus on helping others.   Each day's fast ends with a special meal, called "iftar," a time of joyful sharing with family and friends.

The end of the Ramadan month is a major celebration, Eid al-Fitr, meaning the Feast of Fast-Breaking.  It lasts for three days, during which special foods are prepared, feasts are shared with family and friends, and gifts are exchanged.  For those one cannot visit in person, contact is made through phone calls.   A friend of mine, whose family all live in another country, will make 25 or 30 phone calls.   The Ramadan month of fasting ends today, June 24th, at sundown.   Then the celebration of Eid al Fitr begins.

For those who doubt that our Founding Fathers intended for this country to be welcoming of all religions, it should be noted that President Thomas Jefferson held a White House dinner for a visiting Tunisian envoy that happened to be during Ramadan.  The invitation specified that "dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set" to accommodate the visiting Muslim's observance of Ramadan.

When Bill Clinton was president, the First Lady began a tradition by hosting an Eid al-Fitr reception for 150 people.  She told her guests that:  “A greater understanding of the tenets of Islam in our national consciousness will help us build strength and resilience as a nation. . . .  The values that lie at the heart of Ramadan — faith, family, community and responsibility to the less fortunateresonate with all the peoples of this earth.”

George W. Bush and Barack Obama both continued hosting either an iftar or an Eid al-Fitr dinner each year they were in office.  Bush, notably, spoke at the prayer service following 9/11 where he declared that we were fighting against terrorism, not Islam.   Charlotte Beers, who had served as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the Bush administration, still remembers the first White House iftar following 9/11:  “That dinner was extremely important and heard around the world. . . .  [It] speaks to . . . freedom of religion. It was extremely timely, we felt.”

President Obama spoke at the 2010 iftar dinner, saying:  “Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America.”   At the 2012 iftar, the White House had a special display from the Library of Congress that included Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran.   Obama called it "a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islamlike so many faiths — is part of our national story.”   Obama has also hosted Jewish Passover Seders in the White House, as well as the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

This year will be an exception.   There won't be any gathering in connection with Ramadan at the White House, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did put out a statement with "best wishes to all Muslims celebrating Ed al-Fitr. . .  This day offers an opportunity to reflects on our shared commitment to building peaceful and prosperous communities."

The White House was silent.    Officials did not respond to a request from the Washington Post for comment, although some long-time staff members told them that planning for such an event begins "months in advance;" they didn't believe the Trump White House could organize it in time.

One might note, however, that they managed to have a pretty successful Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn this year, with far less time to prepare.

To my Muslim friends, I apologize for the ignorance and bigotry of our current president.   He does not represent most Americans.

But I would like to wish them Eid Mubarak.


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