Members of the South Asian and Turkish American communities attended a Ramadan iftar dinner organized by the Rumi Forum and held at the American Turkish Friendship Association in Fairfax on July 1st, 2015.
Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council started his remarks with the importance of Ramadan, which marks a precious holy month for all Muslims, or as Mr. Nawaz said, “God sent the Quran on this month and made it an exclamation point on the Muslim calendar.” He said that the things suggested by God must not only be confined to the one month of Ramadan but must be extended above and beyond. He stressed on the criticality of doing without on a daily basis. God chose Ramadan to make fasting and giving obligatory but the lesson that he wants to pass along to his children and grandchildren and onto others is that the lessons of life in moderation and sharing with others must not be restricted to this one month. “We assume too many things, we assume that because we have them we should eat well and take advantage of our riches on this earth but what God is reminding us in Ramadan is, I believe, living a life of moderation and then, looking after others.” For those who can afford it, weekly and monthly contributions to those in need must become a regular habit, he believes.
Another poignant remark made by Mr. Nawaz was the growing intolerance within the Muslim world towards accepting differences in points of view. He believes there seems to be a desire in the Muslim community not to compromise or not to recognize when others have a different way of observing religion. “Enforcement of religion is not religion. It is not the business of the state to impose religion or the business of fellow citizens to impose religion on you. It’s a contract between you and Allah. There shouldn’t be any other constraint or obstacle in this relationship”, he said expressing his personal views. He stressed on the vital importance for Muslims to recognize their own link with God far above reliance on official diktat and to observe the ritual rather than the real meaning of Islam, as the Prophet advised his followers. The questions he raises for himself and others during this holy month are: What kind of world do we want to create for ourselves, for the Muslims, for our children and grandchildren?
In closing Mr. Nawaz’s urged the wider audience to consider the inherent and intrinsic concepts of Islamic society, such as creating democracy instead of accepting rulers who impose their will upon the populace in the name of God. He said, “I think it is incumbent upon all Muslims, and I consider myself equally engaged in this fight, to try and speak up for the individual and the right to observe religion the way you believe it should be observed and how you interpret it from the Quran.”
Dr. Sayyid Syeed, National Director for Interfaith and Community Alliances, one of the pioneers of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), reminded those present of the struggles and successes of the Muslim community in America. Fasting during Ramadan, the invisible act of worship that pays homage to Islamic practice, has become the most popular pillar among the new generation of Muslims in America. “It’s amazing how Muslims, men and women from coast to coast, have been able to create such a respectable, visible institution – from White House to different federal departments to governors and mayors of different cities – they are all holding Iftar parties.” Mr. Syeed says fasting enhances the spiritual aspect of ones being and every religion, by definition, has to have fasting as one of its components. Islam, particularly, elevated fasting to the status of one of the fundamental pillars of the faith. Fasting helps to build communal solidarity and provide for those in need. Ramadan has been instrumental in helping people understand the true essence of Islam.
Aisha Rahman, Executive Director of Karamah, shared a personal story that tied in with the evening’s theme of encouraging dialogue and celebrating diversity. Her father taught her the importance of recognizing her identity as a Muslim over other concerns whether it be of belonging to Sunni or Shia sect, being Urdu or Arabic speaking, or coming from different countries like Pakistan or Turkey. She takes heed to not simplify anybody’s faith, heritage or background but adds, This evening we are here to celebrate intra-cultural relationships. We may not all be Muslim. We may be coming from different nations and tribes. But God says in the Quran: “I created you unto nations and tribes so you can know one another.” And that is what we’re doing here this evening. We are knowing one another.” She believes that God’s message of creating bonds of harmony and dialogue is clear. So even if the world presents constant forces that try to divide and cause schisms between communities and within the Muslim community, it is always imperative to fight against that.
Tariq Shafi, addressing the guests on occasion of the South Asian-Turkish American Ramadan iftar, laid out the historical relationship between Pakistan and Turkey. There are several overlapping commonalities between the two communities that in culture, geopolitics, military, trade, religion, food and others. Former President Pervez Musharraf once said, ““Pakistanis have always occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Turkey.” Mr. Shafi believes that these common bonds are the building blocks to what the two countries can achieve together at the local grassroots level to promote good relations and cooperation. He presents his own ideas and hopes that Turkey and Pakistan may continue collaborating and expand, learn and reinforce ideals that make us all better citizens.
IMF’s Mumtaz Hussain spoke towards the critical value of interacting and engaging with other communities, learning different cultures and being part of each other’s lives. He addressed two main points: the importance of putting humanity over all other forms of identity and focusing on learning and education endeavors. He expressed his happiness and pride of being part of organizations like Rumi Forum and ATFA, which tirelessly promote inclusivity. Speaking of such kinds of organizations, he says, “It is shocking they don’t ask you - what’s your identity? They simply ask you: you are a human being. Not even Muslim. That’s the important thing. Their relationship is beyond that and that is humanity.” The Rumi Forum and ATFA have been organizing spaces that bring together different groups to unite and celebrate each other’s diversity. Mr. Hussain believes that this kind of inclusivity, that includes people from Muslim countries like Somalia and Azerbaijan, and also different religions, makes people feel part of a close-knit united community.
Rumi Forum and ATFA, with the help of sister organizations, runs schools in all parts of the world including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Africa etc. Their focus on learning, knowledge and education is tremendous and this is reflected in the quality of these learning institutions. Citing the personal example of his children going to one such school in Virginia, he says, “In a school where there are only 160 students, there are children representing 30 nationalities. It is a small globe within a small community of a school. The kids growing up are interacting constantly with many different cultures and communities. Imagine their learning when they grow up. They have all these assets and skills to deal and be part of the world - not part of a small group, but of the whole world. And that’s what really excites and amazes me.” In closing, Mr. Hussain reiterated the value of the work being done by inclusive societies that give precedence to human dignity, human culture and values.