Ramadan is a time of giving, praying and fasting that some Muslims compare to Christmas for Christians. But this year — the first since the election of Donald Trump — feels different for many Muslims in Washington.
Chema Jamel Oh brings her local tour guests to a marble wall covered in Arabic calligraphy.
“That’s my favorite,” Jamel Oh says, pointing to the inscribed verses of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. “It basically summarizes what Islam is about: ‘I do not worship that which you worship, nor do you worship that which I worship. … You have your beliefs, and I have mine.’”
Jamel Oh is leading a tour of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the largest mosque in the Puget Sound area. The guests range from Catholic parishioners to agnostics, and Jamel Oh trades jokes and quizzes them on Abrahamic religions.
This is the final week of Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims don’t eat while the sun is up, and the mosque is packed for Iftar, the ceremony at sundown where fasting Muslims eat for the first time all day. But this Iftar is different — the congregation at MAPS has opened the mosque to nonbelievers for all to join in a night of discussion and celebration. And though Jamel Oh and her colleagues are smiling and joking, security guards stand post in and outside the mosque, some wearing bulletproof vests.
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Muslims have been in the news a lot, first with the election of Donald Trump, who called for a ban on Muslims entering the country during his campaign last year, and more recently with attacks on Muslims, including an attack on Muslims leaving prayer in London and a Portland incident on May 26 that ended in two fatal stabbings when bystanders stepped in.
Though many Muslims in America have become accustomed to incidents of harassment over the years, Ramadan has become a time to reach out and show their non-Muslim neighbors that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and charity. That means serving food in the community, even when they haven’t eaten all day; it means making sure refugee parents have presents to give their children; and it means reaching out to their non-Muslim neighbors and inviting them to break fast with them.
There aren’t precise numbers on how many Muslims live in Washington. Pew Research Center estimated it was less than 1 percent of the state’s population in 2014 (less than roughly 70,000), but the research firm Dinar Standard estimated 80,000-100,000 around the same time. The Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) estimates that Muslims in Washington now number “well over” 100,000, according to Arsalan Bukhari, CAIR Washington’s executive director.
This year, the Muslim community’s outreach feels more important than ever. To Ahsen Nadeem, a dental student and youth director at MAPS, Ramadan couldn’t come at a better time.
“Ramadan itself is an antidote to” hostility, Nadeem said. “It gives us a chance to reach out to our community and serve.”
At the interfaith Iftar at MAPS on June 7, the outreach was obvious: attendees included state senators, Bellevue and Sammamish’s police chiefs, FBI special agents, the mayors of Redmond, Bellevue and Kenmore, Seattle mayoral candidates Nikkita Oliver, Bob Hasegawa, and Mike McGinn, six Seattle City Council members, Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu and U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes.
Hayes and others said members of MAPS had reached out to them and invited them to attend.
Nadeem takes Muslim girls and boys in his high-school group out every month to serve food at places like a Tent City 4 homeless encampment in Redmond. During Ramadan, he uses fasting to teach his students about their own privilege.
“I wanted them to feel that hunger that homeless people feel,” Nadeem said. “But … at the same time, say, ‘You have the privilege of going home and knowing there will be a meal for you.’ ”
Donations pour in from the Muslim community around Ramadan, according to Nickhath Sherriff, founder and CEO of the Muslim Community Resource Center. MAPS’ outreach arm.
This year, the group’s Ramadan Food Boxes program has reached 500 refugee families, twice the number they reached last year. The food boxes and gift cards go to Iraqi, Burmese, Afghan, and Pakistani refugees in Washington, thousands of whom live in South King County. More than 20,000 King County resettled refugees are from Muslim-majority countries, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Al-Jamali family was one of them: After fleeing Homs, Syria, they arrived in the U.S. last year during Ramadan and settled in Tukwila. Things didn’t feel festive — the family didn’t know anyone and felt isolated. But Muslims at MAPS took them shopping, helping them buy clothes and gifts. Twelve-year-old Hosni Al-Jamali said he got a toy car, LEGOs and Pokemon cards this year.
“I no longer feel alone at Ramadan,” said Taha Al-Jamali, Hosni’s father.
Another thing that seems different this Ramadan: More non-Muslims are aware of their Muslim neighbors’ struggles. When President Trump won the election in November and again when he gave an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in January, Bukhari received texts and even flowers from neighbors and friends who weren’t Muslim.
“Many good people have come forward … whenever something happens,” said Bukhari. “People didn’t reach out before.”
Leaders in CAIR have been pushing Muslims in the Seattle area for years to reach out to their non-Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. This year, Nadeem’s high-school students are stacking halal groceries, mosques and Muslim-owned restaurants with packets that provide an easy how-to guide for Muslims for engage with their non-Muslim neighbors. The packets have a card saying “Happy Eid!” — the holiday at the end of Ramadan — and instructions to give the cards away with candy bars and, most important, an invite to come over and get to know their Muslim neighbors.
“The whole idea is not to educate about faith,” Bukhari said, who himself went around his neighborhood passing out cards and candy. “Most conversations I’ve had were just normal, neighborhood conversations.”
Ahsen Nadeem came up with these cards to spark those conversations. Research shows that if someone knows a Muslim personally, he or she is more likely to have positive feelings about them. Nadeem says his personal experiences bear this out.
“One thing they very quickly realize is that Muslims are like everyone else,” Nadeem said. “We’re Seahawks fans. We love good food.”
This Ramadan, Nadeem has invited a vegan friend over for Iftar, “so it’s going to be interesting,” he said.
This year, CAIR distributed 20,000 Eid cards, twice as many as previous years, according to Bukhari.
Of course, outreach isn’t always welcome. Mina Zavary is one of Nadeem’s youth-group students at MAPS. She’s a freshman at Interlake High School, and she says some of her classmates yell “terrorist” or “Allahu akbar” at her as a joke in the halls. This Ramadan, Zavary invited all of her classmates — even the ones that yell at her — to attend a “fast-a-thon” at her mosque, to learn more about Islam and fast with her.
Only one came. But Zavary didn’t care.
“Because that one person came, it was worth it,” Zavary said. “That’s how you change hearts — one person at a time.”