Monday, August 15, 2011

A Christian Arab Perspective on Ramadan Fasting


Christian Arabs in the Middle East are much like Jews in the West. When the official holidays roll around, we are both pretty much pushed off to the side and forced to sing along with everyone else. Jews in America experience this feeling of being left out during the Christian holidays that bring life in the country to a grinding halt, and so are Christian Arabs who sit back and watch as the Arab world turns its focus on Islam.

For Jews in America, it was very difficult to be in a public school and not be told that Jesus was born on Christmas Day, or sing Christmas carols at the school holiday play, although I imagine it is like that for Arabs who live in Israel. Many American businesses shut down on Christmas and even Good Friday which precedes Easter, while most others stay open but spend their time relaxing as the Christian world around them comes to a grinding halt. Some Jews even put up “Christmas Trees” to help their children avoid the feeling of being left out.

It’s much like that in the Middle East for Arab Christians where Islam is the dominant religion. The Christian presence, which began in the Holy Land centuries before Prophet Muhammad took up the call, has been dwindling significantly as a result of growing political turmoil, increasing Islamic activism and subtle anti-Christian pressures forbidden from being discussed openly and never discussed in the Arab world media. What once was the “Arab world”, a secular place where everyone no matter the size of your constituency were equals, is today the Islamic world, celebrating a religion in which, ironically, Arabs are becoming more and more the disappearing minority.

The monthlong annual observance of one of Islam’s most important religious duties, Ramadan, began in the United States on Thursday, Sept. 12, when someone in the religious community declared they saw the first light of the crescent moon.

As in Christianity and Judaism, the Islamic calendar is marked by the cycles of the moon, and the observance begins about 11 days earlier each year, unlike Christmas which is marked by a specific date, Dec. 25. During Ramadan, Muslims will abstain from food, drink and other indulgences, and they are inspired to “renew their devotion to God.”

Just as the Christian world shuts down around Jews in the West, the Arab world shuts down around Christians in the Middle East.

Although Islam, like Christianity, is based on a principle of tolerance of others, not all Muslims will tolerate Christians who engage in public displays of celebration during this month.

Muslims frown on any public displays or celebrations during their religious observance, by themselves or by others, including Christian Arabs.

I spent Ramadan in Bethlehem in 2004 and learned that Christians are forced to observe Ramadan, too.

The Christians spent the entire time complaining about the secular impact of Ramadan. Christian-owned restaurants in this city that was once the birthplace of the Christian religion, are forced to close their outdoor patios and temper events such as Christian weddings, parties or large meetings. If you do stop at a restaurant and insist on eating outside, Muslims who walk by will frown and one even walked up to me to say in Arabic that I was being disrespectful for eating in front of Muslims who were in the midst of a difficult fast. Christian life comes to a grinding halt throughout the occupied territories, and in much of the Arab world where Islam has become the focus not only of the governments that have declared it their official religions, but in the societies, too.

But it’s no different even here in “Christian America,” where the post-Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks have forced Americans to open their eyes and minds more to learn about the 19 Arab Muslim hijackers who commandeered four commercial jets killing 3,000 innocent American civilians in the nation’s most brazen terrorist act.

This week the Chicago Tribune, the Midwest’s largest newspaper, began a five-day series of full-page articles on the meaning of Ramadan. In one, an Arab girl was spotlighted as a Muslim, with scant mention of her Arab heritage.

The word “Arab” has a bad connotation, these days, not only in the mainstream media, but among the Arabs themselves who prefer to refer to themselves now as “Muslims.” Ironically, the majority of Arabs in America are not Muslim, but Christian, though there are far more Muslims, more than one billion, in the world.

There is no thought to “Arabs” at all and as an Arab and a Christian, I feel the double whammy of being cast aside not only by Muslims, but also by Americans who continue to remain na├»ve about the fundamentals of the Middle East and everything related to the “war on terrorism,” frequently mistake me for a Muslim. One Christian American once told me, “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”

So this month, as all Arab-American activities come to a halt until the sun sets and the iftar, breaking of the Ramadan fast is allowed, I will relax, read and quietly enjoy my own faith knowing that in this world, I am a vanishing breed.

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