Washington -- The image of American life often held outside the United States differs from the real experiences of Muslims in America, says Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat.
Visitors to the United States who interact with Americans see respect for Islam and Muslims’ lives and practices, Arafat said in an October 5 USINFO Webchat.
This is especially true during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection, as many Muslim communities in the United States open their homes and mosques to neighbors for nightly iftars to break the daily fasts, and interfaith centers, churches and synagogues co-sponsor charity drives with Muslim organizations. Even the president hosts iftars attended by prominent Muslims and average U.S. citizens. (See related transcript.)
During the month of Ramadan, which this year ends on October 12 or 13, depending on the sighting of the moon, Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours and break their fast at iftars after sunset.
In the United States today, Arafat said, mosques and Islamic centers use the month of Ramadan to reach out to their fellow American citizens and to build bridges with the community at large.
“It is wonderful to see the strength of social and family ties and the generosity and commitment during Ramadan within the community to conduct food drives, donate sadaqah [charitable gifts], sponsor orphans and increase their involvement in each other’s charitable work,” Arafat said.
In predominately Muslim countries, restaurants are closed during Ramadan and people refrain from eating in the streets, Arafat said.
In America life goes on as normal during Ramadan, Arafat said. Although it can be challenging observing Ramadan in the United States where only several million people out of 300 million are Muslim, Arafat said, there are no laws preventing people from practicing their faith in the United States.
“Muslims are free to practice their religion in America,” Arafat said. Some Muslims may face challenges due to their work schedules or professions but most employers make accommodations. During Ramadan, many companies adjust work schedules and lunch hours and allow employees to take vacations particularly during the last 10 days of Ramadan, Arafat said.
Young children are not required to fast during Ramadan, according to Arafat, but “young Muslim children in America feel proud that they are fasting.”
Sometimes, Muslim students in public schools bring dates with them to introduce to their classmates. Traditionally, dates are the first food Muslims eat when they break the evening fast. Muslim children often make special presentations in their classes about Ramadan, and some Muslim parents allow their children to have iftar parties and invite both Muslim and non-Muslim friends.
Many American schools allow fasting students to spend lunchtime in the library or a study hall instead of the school cafeteria and some allow students to take a day off for Eid al-Fitr, Arafat noted. Eid al-Fitr is an especially festive break-the-fast celebration on the last day of Ramadan.
Students on university campuses who may be observing Ramadan away from home for the first time are offered support from Muslim student associations and campus imams. (See related article.)
Arafat served for nearly 10 years as the imam for the Muslim Student Association at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he noticed a surge in interfaith activities each year during Ramadan. (See related article.)
Arafat said women are free to wear the hijab, or traditional headscarf, in the United States, where freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, and many Muslim women in America feel they are providing an example of the “true Muslim woman.”
Muslim women in the United States see themselves living in a comfortable environment where they do not have to compromise their faith, Arafat said. Yet, as teachers, doctors, engineers, business owners and mothers -- in addition to being involved in other fields and professions -- Muslim women do not need to refrain from using the talents they were blessed with by Allah, according to the imam.
“America is a society where Muslim women do not feel restricted,” Arafat said.
Arafat is the president of the Islamic Affairs Council of Maryland and the founder and president of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation.
See also Celebrating Ramadan in America.