Ramadhan in America: A lesson for everyone
Muhamad Ali, Riverside, California
In a secular nation like the United States, observing religious obligations is recognized because religious freedom is implemented seriously. I have had many experiences concerning religious freedom in the country, but the most recent one is worth reflecting on.
Obviously fasting in America is unlike fasting in Indonesia, where almost everyone joins you in your quest. The University of California at Riverside, where I teach, is one of the most diverse campuses in America. People of Hispanic, Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Caucasian origin are all proud to be American.
In the second week of Ramadhan, the Islamic Center of Riverside hosted a public gathering. The event was specifically organized for Muslims to break the fast, but everyone invited also enjoyed the food and drinks provided, including non-Muslims. Everyone who attended, regardless of their religion or identity, conversed in a friendly and respectful manner, despite the fact they had never met.
A Jewish rabbi shared jokes with the crowd and thanked the leaders of the city's Muslim community for the invitation. He said rabbis should not feel uneasy congratulating Muslims during Ramadhan. He said he hoped there would come a time when people greeted people of other religions without even thinking about it.
Symbolic gestures and greetings, however trivial they may seem, are significant in the creation of an inclusive and respectful social environment. A Catholic said he understood the feelings of Muslims, and that in Northern Ireland terror attacks have also occurred, pointing toward the fact terrorism is not associated with a particular religion.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack was a turning point for different religious communities in the U.S., during which they were forced to come to terms with differences and prejudices. In a secular country like the U.S., efforts to foster interfaith dialogue and meetings are taken seriously. Muslims and non-Muslims work together to overcome misunderstandings and misperceptions between them.
In a touching speech, UCR Professor June O'Connor, a Catholic and an expert on comparive religious ethics, emphasized the need to go beyond tolerance. One has to show true willingness to know more about others in order to achieve peace and harmony, she said. She invited the audience to strengthen common ethics shared by conflicting religious beliefs.
Another interesting aspect of the gathering was that the city's Islamic community handed out awards to recognize the contributions certain figures had made to the Islamic community and the general public.
The mayor of the city has been a leader in the areas of inclusivism and multiculturalism. He initiated a forum aimed at building a more inclusive Riverside community. In his speech, he said the inclusive community was a type of social capital that could be seen as a great asset.
Having observed this particular event, I have some lessons to share. First, a religious community has to reach out, to embrace inclusiveness and pluralism. No one should express the idea that one religion is superior over others. One should embrace others, seek common values and set aside differences.
Second, this relationship must not be built in terms of majority-minority because everyone is equal. In the U.S., the value of inclusiveness was developed by a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who become a president in a predominantly Protestant country. It was also developed by a Muslim who became a senator, and in the future, may be developed by anyone from any ethnic group or religion. Inclusiveness means everyone should be included without exception.
Interfaith meetings are an excellent beginning to reducing racialism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, anti-Christianism and so forth. However, such meetings are not without long processes of engagement. They require moral courage and sincerity in building a cooperative, inclusive and prosperous community.
Third, everyone's contribution to the community must be recognized and acknowledged regardless of their race, gender or religion. Recognition is important and must be given by the state and/or civil society.
Fourth, Muslims can actually live a prosperous, Islamic life in a country where the constitution separates the church from the state. Muslims are proud of being American Muslims and they do not endorse the idea of an Islamic state or the formal implementation of sharia. Muslims in America hope that the current secular constitution will last forever as it benefits rather than harms people in terms of community building.
However, this secular constitution does not mean everyone takes distrust, prejudices and stigmas for granted as if problems do not exist. The secular constitution does not necessarily mean that religious communities and leaders can not speak and stand up to express their religious views. But they speak in terms of their contributions to the larger community and to the state.
Lastly, people should speak their mind without pressure because they are speaking in a civilized and a non-threatening manner. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution, and is practiced by many local politicians and civil society leaders.
A sheik from al-Azhar University, for example, who clearly has a different viewpoint regarding how society needs to be educated, has continually been invited to give Ramadhan lectures and lead prayers in the mosque as part of his contribution to the community at large.
The secular state allows its citizens to speak their mind as long as what they say does not harm the rights of others. The most important thing is not what is said, but how it is said.
There remain many challenges ahead. Interfaith meetings are important, but not sufficient. Leaders must return to the grassroots level and reach out to the marginalized, oppressed, poor, backward and illiterate.
These people need more than just meetings. They also need interfaith social work and social, economic, cultural and political networks that reflect practical pluralism.
Like in Indonesia where such interfaith meetings are common, the challenge is the same. How can we move further toward the grassroots level?
People of different religions can learn from each other's beliefs and practices. Muslims in particular countries can learn from other cultures about how religious freedom and social inclusivity is upheld.
The writer is an assistant professor at the University of California's Religious Studies Department in Riverside. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.