For white evangelical Christians, America is a heaven on earth. Christian holidays are acknowledged and celebrated as federal holidays; the United States remains, at least culturally, a majority Christian country; and if a Colorado baker wants to not make a cake for a gay couple on religious grounds, the Supreme Court upholds that right. The political ideals of white evangelicalism are heartily embodied by the US president despite the fact that, as a someone who admitted to sexual assault, he is completely contrary to ideals of personal morality. American society and the American government are accommodating and accepting of a white evangelical Christianity that implicitly (or explicitly) devalues any religion that “fails” to be Christianity.
And so, for the most part, Americans know very little about any religion that is not represented by a white man with a long white beard. Despite the fact that there are 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide and that the US prizes “freedom of religion,” most Americans hardly know how to see hijabi women as human. According to a 2018 report published by New York City’s Commission of Human Rights, between July 2016 and late 2017 “more than in one in four [27.4%] Muslim Arab women wearing a hijab had been pushed or shoved intentionally on a subway platform.”
Additionally, FBI crime reports reveal that prevalence of hate crimes have been on the rise since 2016. This mix of racism and religious intolerance can be seen at the institutional level within Donald Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim nations. While the United States has always made space for (or has always been) white evangelical Christianity, American Muslims have hardly been recognized or respected.
Even religions that are regarded as more closely related to Christianity, such as Judaism, have been treated with hostility. On April 27th, in a disturbing display of anti-Semitism, a 19-year-old male used quotes from the Bible to justify his decision to shoot up a synagogue in Ponway, CA, killing one woman and injuring two others, including the rabbi.
Given this violence, I felt the need to be better educated about a group that, when not ignored, have been demonized. I grew up Catholic, in a church so old and white that I got a little confused and didn’t fully realize that I wasn’t actually white. Since then I have moved away from the church, but through a mixture of financial aid and being located in the proverbial “big city,” I attend a Christian university in Seattle. Although explicit Islamophobia is rare, the Christian devaluation of Islam became apparent to me after I took a course on Islamic Civilization and tried to talk about Islam with Christian students. Anytime I would attempt to discuss similarities they would literally freeze and could see their jaws tighten. They would then resist any notion of sameness between the Qur’an and the Bible. “They are just different” was a common response.
So, in order to learn more about Islam, Muslims, and the experience of observing a holiday that few people recognize as more than a blip on the calendar, I decided to observe Ramadan: essentially the Islamic equivalent of Christmas. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic Calendar and is one of the five pillars of Islam, the five rules that all Muslims should follow. It is a time to practice self-restraint and a time to move closer to God. As Zena, one of the Muslim students I interviewed to better understand Ramadan, put it, “You’re not feeding your stomach, you’re feeding your soul.” Other students emphasized how Ramadan should be both a cultural and religious celebration. Since May 6th I have been fasting from sunup to sundown. Yes it is hard, and yes I have learned a lot of new things. But interestingly the experience has been strikingly similar to my Catholic experience of Lent.
Ramadan is a time of piety and self-reflection. Muslims seek to be closer to God by refraining from earthly needs; to identify with the fasting performed by Muhammad; and also to gain empathy for the less fortunate—those who do not have the privilege to eat when they are hungry. Giving to charity is recommended during the month of Ramadan
Lent is a time of piety, of self-reflection. Christians seek to be closer to God by fasting, to understand the condition of Jesus as he fasted in the desert. Giving to charity is emphasized during the 40 days of Lent.
I grew up observing Lent. Although the hunger was not as intense—usually I just gave up something superfluous like cake or pie—the religious themes were very similar to that of Ramadan. To think that Christianity and Islam stand in opposition to each other is an ill-informed opinion. Both religions emphasize doing good, helping society. Both have a complicated history and it is worth learning about all religions even if you don’t practice one.
The following is a record of my experiences observing Ramadan at a small Christian university in Seattle, WA—Seattle Pacific University. What I ultimately discovered is the difference between Christianity and Islam is unnecessarily emphasized to create division between two Abrahamic faiths. Ramadan is similar to Lent in more ways than it is different. Furthermore, Ramadan has helped me better understand my relationship with food, the value of community, and the usefulness of Instagram.
My Schedule is Wrong: The Hardest Part
“They’re actually really good! Do you want some? Here!” “...No.”
Going to school while fasting is extremely difficult. Going to a Christian school where virtually no one is fasting (or cares that you are fasting) is torturous. During the first day of fasting, an awful Monday of Garfield proportions, I noticed how much food I did not have and could not eat. Cliff bars, Chex Mix, Trader Joe’s dried mangoes, sliced bananas, kombucha, yerba mate, oranges, Starbucks...and this was just one class. Eventually, going without food for an extended period of time became, if not easy, manageable. My stomach pain subsided, and after about a week and half I would no longer feel dizzy. What has not yet become easy is the loneliness. Without a community to eat and suffer with, it is easy to feel dejected.
Fasting is not just badly chapped lips, dry lip skin threatening to crack and fall from your face. It is not just the dizzy, dehydrated feeling during an intramural soccer game, the nausea after playing 3 on 3 basketball game. Nor is it just the buoyant presence of an ever-grumbling stomach. Instead, Ramadan is hard because not eating when everyone else is stuffing their face feels incredibly lonely. I am not just hungry. I am on a new month-long schedule that partially (and temporarily) alienates me from the people around me. I’ve known that sharing food, breaking bread, is something intimate, but until I refused the fruit snacks, the quesadillas, and the coffee that was offered to me, I didn’t realize how much I needed it.
I prepare food around 8:30 pm, the same time that my girlfriend, Melanie, goes to bed.
As she sleeps, I just hope that the beep of the microwave and the clang of dishes aren’t too loud as I heat rice, then potstickers, then more rice. As I chewed green bell pepper in a dark room, I felt that my mom would be happy about my silent iftar—because it is impossible to talk with your mouth full when there is no one to talk to.
At work, it is not much easier. I generally work nights, scooping ice cream at Salt and Straw, and I don’t arrive back home until around 1am. If I have a 30 minute break, I’ll pack as much food as possible into some Tupperware and eat it as fast as I can. If there are bags of chips or popcorn left for the staff, I’ll finish both bags and not feel a single ounce of guilt. Most of my coworkers have usually eaten dinner so sometimes I have the pleasure of literally stuffing couscous into my mouth while they check their phone and try not to look disgusted. If I only have a 10-minute break, I’ll eat ice cream. And eating 4 oz of Snickerdoodle ice cream as a meal is a gross way to break fast. What I’ve learned is that Ramadan is just as much about community as it is about valuing food.
Love (Good) Food, Love Yourself (Well)
On one fateful Tuesday night at 10, for my iftar I had three Dick’s Special Burgers, root beer, water, and some outstandingly unimpressive fries. I have not felt so disgusting since I consumed 3 Red Bulls and a pack of Oreos to study for a final. I wanted to throw up. Instead, I endured one of the worst bowel movements in the history of my life. Too much information, but that is the consequences of having one bad meal during Ramadan. In order to avoid these depressing events, I have been forcing myself to better appreciate good foods and to eat foods responsibly.
Now, somehow, I eat well and I eat meals. Before Ramadan, I had the bad habit of snacking as a replacement for complete meals. This doesn’t work anymore because now there is no such thing as snack time. I get back to my apartment, place my keys on the counter, and have no idea what to do next. “Isn’t this snack time?” my stomach will ask with a grumble.
Fortunately, snacking has been replaced by (mostly) balanced foods that contribute to healthy BM’s and good nutrition. Bell peppers are my fibers, eggs are my fats, rice goes with everything, oranges are my dessert. Instead of grabbing food, I am preparing food. Ramadan has helped me feel less like a frenzied student and more like an adult. Plus, it is a meditative, introspective time a lot like what I imagined Lent would feel like as an adult.
Much like Christmas, Ramadan is alive and well on social media. I thought that if I wanted to understand Ramadan from a more millennial point of view, it would be essential to follow Ramadan related hashtags. I chose #ramadaninusa, #ramadan2019, and, #ramadan because I believed they would have the widest range of Muslim representation. Most of the posts and most of the stories, predictably, are about food. Specifically, the most common post is a table spread. Plates of naan, pizza, shawarma, baklava, chicken, tonic water, lentil soup, burgers galore, and my personal favorite—the infinite boomerang shots of overly enthusiastic rice stirring. It is worth noting the table spread is often more common than the individual meal as it aligns with the communal aspect of Ramadan. Ramadan is not the month to spill a Hot Pocket on your keyboard as you watch keyboard cat do his thing. Ramadan, as seen through Instagram, values the meal as a time to engage in community, to celebrate togetherness, and to celebrate food as a means to bond.
The other important aspect of social media and Islam is that Instagram has helped me visualize the global range of Islam. A blue and pink “Ramadan Vibes” flash on posts from England, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, and even Seattle. Without traveling there is the risk of assuming that the dominant American cultural norms and practices are the global standard. But traveling is expensive and not everyone has the privilege of seeing and experiencing other cultures; I would travel more if possible, but I can hardly afford to fly, and I I can’t afford to not work. Instagram offers a small window into the lives of those that we cannot see without paying for a plane ticket. Although it’s hard to have an embodied experience through my 4-inch display, seeing the diversity among Muslims helps me have a slightly more developed image when I hear the word “Islam.” These benign images of a French hijabi woman ogling her plate of falafel, of a Moroccan couple smiling at a fancy resort, are important pictures for Americans who only hear about Muslims as terrorists or misogynists.
How Things Could Be Better:
Things don’t have to be this way. Acknowledgment of Ramadan would be mutually beneficial to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. University dining halls could stay open later, thus being intentional to provide accommodations for Muslim students fasting during finals. Muslims would be able to eat, students would have access to late-night food—something few Top Ramen eating Freshman would oppose—and every undergrad would be called to learn about Ramadan.
American capitalism could also benefit from recognizing Ramadan, without appropriating it. Just stay open later. Just for a month. Have special offers. Make a celebration of it. It’ll be fun.
Although I had a fairly high level of commitment to this project, I did many things incorrectly. Some were purposeful, others were accidental. Firstly, I decided to drink water for the majority of the days of Ramadan, something that most (or all) Muslims do not . My rationalization was that my Saudi friend, Khalid, had reportedly drank water for a few days during last year’s Ramadan—a report that actually turned out to be false once I asked him about it. Only now, during the last few weeks of Ramadan, am I fasting without water. Secondly, I am not eating halal foods—I am just not prepared to do that at the moment. Why? Because it is incredibly difficult to eat halal in a culture that loves gelatin and alcohol. Much of the food that I eat contains gelatin, and though Seattle is much more vegan friendly than other parts of the US few eateries have halal foods. Additionally, alcohol is the mandatory backdrop to “having a good time.” Drinking with the goal of getting drunk is just something that young people are supposed to do.
Besides showing what a wimp I am (after I told one of my interviewees that I was drinking water, she raised her eyebrows and said, “You know you’re not supposed to do that”), the ways that I observed Ramadan “incorrectly” shows the continual difficulty of being Muslim in a Christian space. It is harder than not eating when everyone around you is eating in or dining out, harder than everyone asking, “What’s Ramadan?” It is practicing a religion in a society that society refuses to recognize. Americans recognize that Muslims exist, but the failure to learn about what being Muslim entails is a failure to fully recognize the humanity of Muslims.
Conclusion: “The Internet Is There For A Reason”
My favorite quote this month comes from Kaniz, an accounting major with a lot to say about the general lack of acknowledgment of this major religious holiday by Seattle Pacific University and the mainstream US culture at large. I had asked her how she would explain Ramadan and she responded with: “the internet is there for a reason.” Kaniz, as well as other students that I interviewed, wearily explained that they are tired of having to explain things that people should already know. It should not be the responsibility of minorities to have to explain everything to the majority. It is tiresome. If we really want to be serious about combating Islamophobia, if we really want to be accurate in our belief that we actually “stand with our Muslim neighbors,” it is essential for us to
learn about the groups that have been “othered.” Participating in Ramadan is not necessary—I do not think that anyone should be required to celebrate a holiday that is not within their faith tradition—but it necessary that Americans at least know what it is and why it is important. Without education, ignorance grows like a weed in our garden.
Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, is June 4th. It will be celebrated by Muslims worldwide and will be a day where I plan to eat everything. It not too late to learn about Ramadan and even participate in Eid—a chance to celebrate and learn about American Muslims. Who knows, you might even have fun.
About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.