Searching for a greater interfaith understanding

Muslims end their daily fasts during Ramadan with an iftar, an evening meal often eaten with others. (Photo by raasiel via Flickr.)

We are currently in Islam’s holiest month. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not be hosting a traditional Iftar or breaking of the fast as it has been done for the past 20 years. Incidents of Islamophobia are rampant. Yet, even as the federal government fails to honor a major holiday or quickly condemn fatal incidents of hate, President Donald Trump celebrates a ten-year, $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

Today’s political regime and climes are teaching us so much about what we, the people, can do to make things better. We can learn from the others around us, and the incidents that ignite and unite us in love — even as we make mistakes in our day-to-day interactions. 

Ananya Rabeya is one person who has taught me much. She is the Seattle Chapter president of #Spreeha Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to help alleviate poverty in Bangladesh. She literally brought tears to my eyes with her sincerity, care for the community and her loving support for the mission of a new grassroots civic group Act Now Mantra, that was birthed by the needs our times.

Then, I listen to the brilliant Aneelah Afzali, the director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond (MAPS). Afzali is off the charts bright and speaks very quickly, yet she is gentle, loving, empathetic. She says — rightly — that the culture of fear against Muslims is promoted systematically to justify authoritarianism.

We know of wrong-doers from all religions, but the crimes they commit do not color the entire group. Between 2008 and 2013, about $205 million were channeled through about 33 organizations to groups that promote Islamophobia.

It’s people like Ananya Rabeya and Aneelah Afzali who helped me realize that I need a greater interfaith understanding in my own life.

My realization that I knew disgracefully little about Muslims’ lives started with our attempt to book a date and venue for our Food Festivus event for Act Now Mantra.

We were honing in on June when Rabeya pointed out that a food festival during the month of Ramadan wasn’t optimal. One of our organizers asked, “You can eat only until 9 p.m., right?” She had to learn it was the opposite — that people observing Ramadan can eat only after sunset. How ignorant of us to not know the religious practices of 1.8 billion people on this planet earth.

Then we tried to book the facility of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound thinking that besides food, we could have a few cultural performances there too. A friend was surprised. “Performances at MAPS? Why, I myself go there to pray! You can’t be performing there.”

Request denied. Now we are hoping for an arrangement at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.

Another eye-opener was at a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I was seated next to a handsome couple, who were Muslims. The people pouring wine kept missing our table and I motioned them over. When they came and poured wine in the glass of the gentleman to my left, I was appalled. I assumed that my neighbors would be offended.

“Muslims don’t drink alcohol and he must be offended and probably feels insulted and resents my instigating this wine-pouring!” I thought. Quickly, I picked up his half-full glass, and poured the wine into my wineglass. Smiling at him, I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back in my chair.

Imagine my mortification when he motioned another person to bring him wine!

How much misinformation do we carry about communities we don’t interact with? How many chances to enrich ourselves with the sheer love and cultures of beautiful souls, we have amongst us, are we missing out on? My own ignorance and all the missed chances are so clear to me.

Why am I feeling so emotional? Is it the unbearable sweetness of Ananya’s love, Aneelah’s sincere devotion to spreading truth, the classy demeanor of the gentleman who did not embarrass me after my social gaffe? Or do I cry for all the lost opportunities in growth so far and my obliviousness to the reality of millions for so long? Why can I count on one hand the number of friends I have in the black community and the Native American community?

Can we make cross-community interactions more intentional, frequent and enhance/endow ourselves by being more inclusive, curious, giving and open to taking? And as rational, prudent human beings, if not as kind, large-hearted ones  — shouldn’t we?

I have always felt that we should invite more non-Indians and non-Hindus to our festivals and now that feeling is strengthened even more. Also elevated is my resolve to participate in many more Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations with gusto – and I am grateful to all friends who have included me in the past. And we need to find ways to have the story of Sikhs told more clearly and participate in their community events like the one held in Kent in May.

Because of this, I’m grateful that people in Muslim community is inviting everyone in their traditional breaking of their fast in their holiest month. MAPS is hosting its annual Interfaith Iftar on June 7. Islamic Community of Bosniaks in Washington and Edmonds Lutheran Church are also hosting an interfaith Iftar on June 10. Other mosques and communities in the Seattle area may also be hosting events open to the public throughout this month.

Editor’s note: The event at MAPS is sold out. This post has been updated to include other public events.