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American Muslims Reach Out During Ramadan - 2002-11-25


English Feature #7-336961 Broadcast November 25, 2002

As American Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan by fasting and prayer, they also try to acquaint their non-Muslim neighbors with the meaning and practice of Ramadan. More about this on today’s edition of New American Voices.

During this month-long period of abstinence, many Muslims in America take the opportunity to foster a better understanding of Islam and Ramadan among their non-Muslim fellow-Americans. Ozkan Erenoglu emigrated from Turkey four years ago, and now runs the Simit and Kabob, a Turkish restaurant on the outskirts of Washington. Although he and his staff spend the entire day working with food, during Ramadan they religiously refrain from eating until after sunset. Mr. Erenoglu says he tries to answer the questions of his non-Muslim customers who are somewhat puzzled by this. He tells them although it may not be easy to fast, while surrounded by food and good smells all day, there is a beauty to doing what God ordered.

"As Muslims living in this society we have one duty, that is to tell others about our religion, maybe not by our words but by our behavior. We need to show them the beauty of Islam, and we need to make them wonder where this beauty is coming from.”

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, has a similar goal. Executive director Nihal Awad says that Ramadan offers an opportunity to reach out to non-Muslims.

"Every year we encourage Muslims nationwide to communicate with the media, with the general public, and when doing activities during the month of Ramadan to invite people to have a closer look at Islam by interacting with Muslims, and see how Muslims live their lives, how they practice their religion… In particular in Ramadan we encourage pople to have Open House. Because they break the fast at sunset time, it may coincide with the time when people eat dinner, usually.”

And so the Muslim Community Center of Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, hosted its first Open House this year, drawing about 300 people. Muslims and non-Muslims sat together at long tables covered with white tablecloths and dined on rice and shish-kabob and vegetables. For Amy Stone, a non-Muslim, the Open House was both informative and enjoyable.

“This evening I’ve had the most conversations I’ve ever had in a visit to the Muslim Community Center. We’ve spoken about Ramadan, we’ve spoken about the importance of the breaking of the fast, why Mohammed called people to fast, we’ve talked about the importance of us all coming together as a people and understanding each other’s cultures and foods – and it’s been really fun!”

Zarina Mirza, a young woman in a rose-colored headscarf, also found the Open House and the interaction with her non-Muslim neighbors worthwhile.

“Mostly they were asking me about food and, you know, about the prayers, how we pray. And I think it’s wonderful to exchange the ideas and we talk about the Christianity and Islam and I think it’s so good to know each other and that we feel more comfortable.”

Kerim and Nilufer Guc, a young Turkish couple, say they often talk with their American acquaintences about the meaning of Ramadan. Kerim Guc points out that Ramadan is more than just refraining from food and drink during daylight hours.

“While we’re fasting, we’re learning a lot of things. We’re learning to restrict ourselves, we’re learning, actually, to improve ourselves, and we’re learning other peoples situations – poor people’s situations – and we share their problems. And when we break the fast we appreciate everything that God gives us, we understand how important it is to appreciate it…”

Nilufer Guc says that Ramadan is different in the United States than it is in Turkey. There, she says, it’s more of a community celebration.

“It’s one of the times you wait for the whole year to come. It's really fun. It’s a big celebration. Even the food you prepare is different. All the shops are open late at night. It’s very colorful.”

Nilufer Guc says her American colleagues ask many questions about Ramadan, but are especially fascinated by the fasting aspect.

“Mostly they ask if I get really hungry, if it keeps me behind from my work – which is not the case. Actually, I feel more powerful after a couple of days. Yeah, that’s what they wonder, usually.”

Ramadan, which this year began on November 7th, ends December 5th with communal prayers and the traditional feast of Eid-ul-Fitr to celebrate the breaking of the fast. This feature was adapted from a story by VOA-TV's George Dwyer.

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