In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, enthusiasm for interfaith iftar events swept America’s liberal Christians. When I was studying theology, an interfaith iftar – usually hosted by a campus church group – typically expressed a message more political than religious. We are not stigmatising you, the Christians took pains to say, even as politicians and pundits are misrepresenting and maligning a whole faith. Genuine curiosity about Islam played a role, to be sure, but a subordinate one. At times the events seemed like an anxious assurance of Christian virtue. I’m a veteran of these well-meant gatherings – occasions, I’m afraid, of strained conversation between Christians and Muslims over university-sponsored hummus in a borrowed church fellowship hall.
Despite many such gestures of interfaith goodwill, I had never actually been the guest at an iftar. Indeed I had not set foot in a mosque for 10 years until my wife and I were invited, along with a few dozen other non-Muslim locals, to the 13th annual community iftar at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, Illinois, which took place on September 11, 2009.
The Islamic Foundation’s hospitality was of an entirely different order than that of the interfaith iftars I remembered. Caterers in white and black scurried around making preparations, as if at a large wedding. We showed up early and made halting small-talk with the elegantly bescarfed matrons taking down information and distributing name-tags. Then as the evening drew closer to its official beginning, a suspiciously well-coiffed, smiling group coalesced and started talking about voting records and elections. The local politicians had arrived.
A young woman took to the podium to begin the proceedings. She gamely tried to teach us to respond to “assalamu alaikum” with “wa alaikum assalam” and explained the ritual breaking of the fast and the call to maghrib prayers. Somewhat at a loss, she pointed out that this year’s community iftar was taking place on the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. “I don’t know if that was because it was the day the hall was available or because it was the third Friday of Ramadan,” she told us, in an earnest and tentative tone of voice. Coincidence or not, she felt it had to be mentioned. Barack Obama’s video greeting to the world’s Muslims played on the hall’s projection screen. He didn’t mention the attacks either.
Nor did the parade of local officials that the woman subsequently called up to the podium to make remarks. This suburban part of the state has long been a Republican stronghold, a legacy of the flood of white residents out of Chicago in decades past. But demographics have changed since then. The US Census estimates that 20,000 more Asians live in this area than did only eight years ago, now making up 10 per cent of the local population. The Islamic Foundation raises four million dollars a year from its members, enrols 600 students in its comprehensive primary and secondary schools and accommodates up to 2,000 worshippers at a time. One of the largest mosques in North America, it is now only one of several in suburban Chicago.
Hence this is not a place where local politicians of any party can afford to offer grave thoughts on a clash of civilisations. Rather, politicians here are wise to enact the age-old American tradition – honed on German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and each following wave of immigrants – of sampling the ethnic cuisine, attending the high holy days and pronouncing a group to be the salt of the earth. Mitt Romney may feel free to slip “Islamofascism” into every speech and Glenn Beck can question the patriotism of American Muslims, but politicians around here live under different rules.
Prompted to say something about how they’ve encountered Islam, one state senator said she had been to an iftar at another mosque earlier in the week. “I learned that Ramadan moves throughout the year,” she reported with smiling, democratic candour. A town trustee noted his admiration for the discipline and introspection of Ramadan. “Some of my best friends are Muslim,” a candidate for the state legislature said, taking the additional step of pointing one out by name in the audience. He then invited questions about his candidacy. A representative from the local Republican Party – a young man in braces – made a point of meeting everyone and was buoyantly undeterred in his rounds of hand-shaking by the polite refusals of several women. The sheriff invited anyone to call his office line directly or to relay any concerns through Moin “Moon” Khan, the Indian-American broker between the Muslim community and the area’s political elite. A prominent public voice for the compatibility of Islam and American patriotism, Khan was himself elected a town trustee in 2005, making him, according to his website, the first Muslim to hold office in the state. Most of the guests mentioned him as their primary contact with the Muslim community.
We filed upstairs for prayers, the guests removing our shoes and observing from the rear. At least one joined in. A young man explained the discipline of salaat, answering questions about the logistics of daily prayer. His public high school, he said, kept a space in the dean’s office for Muslim students to pray during the day.
At dinner, I found myself behind the politicians as they cautiously navigated the buffet line, trying to identify koftah and tahini. “Is this sausage?” “No, it wouldn’t be sausage.” The night’s keynote was offered by Ahmed Rehab, the local director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He talked about the double horror of the September 11 attacks, which he experienced both as an American who loves his country and as a Muslim who cherishes a very different understanding of his faith than that expressed by al Qa’eda. But, he said, if there was a “silver lining to the dark cloud” of the attacks’ aftermath, it was that Muslims learnt to reach out and educate their fellow Americans about Islam. Just like the Germans and the Irish, he said, American Muslims have had to struggle towards acceptance and full citizenship, but they have had to do it “in the spotlight of suspicion” that the attacks engendered.
Rehab’s remarks would have been right at home at the interfaith iftars of my theological education. But here they were overshadowed by the event itself. When a Republican politician with a Slavic surname talks about how great Ramadan is, listens reverently to the chants of “Allahu Akbar” piped in over the speakers and waits until 7:08 to tuck into the falafel, fine words and multicultural yearnings are pretty much redundant. It was a surprising scene to me, but it shouldn’t have been. Having spent much of my life in the company of religious leaders and local politicians, I’m confident that, left to their own devices, politicians would probably manage to broker respectful coexistence well before religious leaders were done wrangling over the attributes of God. Guided by the imperatives of the ballot box, local politicians have a strong incentive to look for the best in people, establish common values and aspirations and win the trust of a community’s acknowledged leaders.
As the crowd broke up for fruit, pastries and conversation, the twinkle-eyed Hyderabadi grandmother who had invited us to the iftar promised Thanksgiving turkeys for the food pantry at the church where my wife serves as pastor. On our way out, she chased after us, sending us off with a vase of brilliant orange flowers. The car park was overflowing with worshippers arriving for isha, hustling children indoors and hastily wrapping up phone conversations – Muslims, Americans and constituents, not necessarily in that order.
Benjamin Dueholm is a Lutheran pastor and writer living in Chicago.