By Saadia Faruqi
Source: A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy
Source: A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy
Interfaith Ramadan events are constantly on my mind these days. As interfaith liaison for my mosque I’ve been organizing weekly women’s Iftaars every year for three years, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk about some lessons learned on this blog here and here. With two weeks remaining until we bid farewell to another sacred month, it may be time to discuss some stereotypes that I’ve witnessed among our guests and how I’ve tried to dispel some of them.
Stereotypes or myths are created when we observe a characteristic in one or a few people, and assign it to the entire group. You may consider yourself very tolerant and informed, but if you’ve ever used the term “all” before a descriptive sentence, chances are you’re stereotyping without even knowing it. Often stereotypes are quite harmless or even positive (such as all Asians are good in math) but the concept itself is dangerous because it leads to a tendency to lump an entire group of the “other” into one neat box. And common sense tells us that’s impossible, unnatural, inconceivable.
The bigger the group the more perilous is its stereotyping, because the probability of the statement being true is miniscule. The good news about interfaith dialogue in any setting – Ramadan or otherwise – is that the audience is willing to be corrected. People visit mosques because they want to know the truth, because they aren’t satisfied with what they see or hear on the news and want to get more accurate information. That’s why interfaith events are an excellent avenue for removing stereotypes and increasing understanding, if approached in a positive manner.
One of my favorite harmless stereotypes is about dates – the kind that we eat, not the kind we go on! Since my mosque is inhabited primarily by Pakistani Americans, dates aren’t served outside of Ramadan. One time a Christian guest visited our mosque on Eid; she was engaged in wonderful conversation and good food with me for more than an hour, but when dessert was offered she expressed her confusion. “I don’t understand; when will the dates be served?” she asked. After a few moments racking my brains I realized the stereotype she was exhibiting… that all Muslims were Arabs. It took her a short while to understand that all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world don’t eat dates, speak Arabic or live in the Middle East. Since at that time we were surrounded by at least a hundred women speaking a non-Arab language and wearing colorful South Asian dresses, the guest was easily set straight.
Other common myths about Muslims that can easily be dispelled in an interfaith setting are that Muslim women are oppressed or that the hijab is forced upon them by their fathers/husbands. By just sitting down for a meal with a variety of women of all professions and backgrounds this myth of gender inequality is shattered more effectively than any lecture or book can. That’s not all; there are many other small yet impactful ways of increasing understanding between people. By incorporating a tour of the mosque in the Iftaar program, myths about Islamic worship can be removed and similarities between the forms of prayers of different religious groups can be promoted. By including short Quran recitations or Hadith narrations in the event agenda, the beauty of scripture can be fully appreciated by those not familiar with it. By holding frank discussions about current events as part of the interfaith discussion, common stereotypes relating to terrorism and violence on the part of Muslims can be shelved forever. This is ample opportunity to be creative and think outside the box, but remember that lectures and speeches are never as effective as open discussion around food.
So the aim of interfaith Ramadan events should be not only to share the traditions of fasting and Iftaar but also to take some time to gently and kindly remove misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims with our excellent behavior and attitudes, our wide variety of cultural norms, our religious expressions in a non-threatening manner, and our moderate Islamic views. May this Ramadan be a month full of faith and enlightenment not only for us but also for our guests. Amen.
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.