The first day of Ramadan in Washington
American Muslims express optimism despite reports of rising Islamophobia amid a tense political atmosphere in a presidential election year.
During a visit to the Islamic Center of Washington, I joined the congregation gathered to break fast on the first day of Ramadan. Volunteers served generous portions of dates, fruit and a variety of ethnic food.
The congregation represents a diverse segment of Muslim Americans who are statistically better educated and earn higher incomes than the average American. At the Washington mosque, they included immigrants and first-generation citizens, recent converts, young people and elderly men and women. The mood was upbeat even as some described incidents in which they were targeted for being Muslim.
“I experienced Islamophobia twice,” said 23-year-old Fatina Bangura, the daughter of an immigrant from Sierra Leone who said she plans to begin graduate studies in family science.
“One woman stopped her car as I walked to the bus stop and said: ‘Ewww’ and continued on,” recalled Bangura, who wears the hijab. “Another time a woman rolled down her window and said: ‘This is our country’, then hurled insults at me that I won’t repeat because we’re in a mosque. Some of my friends experienced worse things.”
Jamila, a Moroccan immigrant and mother of two, drives a taxi for extra income. She said that sometimes her customers admit that they felt nervous entering her car and realising she was a Muslim when they saw her hijab. During one recent incident, Jamila, a slim woman who takes regular precautions for personal safety as a taxi driver, was amused to learn that she was perceived as a threat by a larger male customer.
“A group of passengers entered my car, and when one of them realised I’m Muslim, he immediately said: ‘Oh no! I forgot something. I have to get out of the car.’ But his friends said, ‘No, no. What’re you talking about?’” recounted Jamila.
“So then I started driving and my iPhone announced the Azan. I had forgotten to silence it. So the guy got so scared he jumped out of the car while I was driving! His friends ended up apologising to me and they got out of the car to go find him,” she said.
Jamila added that none of the incidents will dissuade her from living her life and expressing her faith with confidence.
“I am not afraid, even if Trump wins,” she said, echoing a common sentiment among congregants who shared similar stories of Islamophobia but said they overall feel confident. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been accused of inflaming xenophobic sentiments among his supporters with statements about Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants in general.
But for 17-year-old Ali Aruna, whose parents are from Côte d’Ivoire, a Trump presidency would be the worst possible outcome.
“I hope Trump is not elected,” he said, adding he experiences discrimination both for being black and being Muslim.
“When I wear the jalabiya and kufia, people who know me are surprised. Sometimes when I ride the bus dressed like that, I feel hostility from people,” he said. “It’s like they think all Muslims are bad, just like some people think that all black people are thieves.”
His friend Abdul Aziz, 21, concurred. “People can’t tell that I’m Muslim unless I tell them, so I end up hearing them talk about Muslims in a bad way,” he said.
None of this talk matters to Tristian Murphy, 24, who took her shahada and a few days later was observing her first Ramadan as a Muslim.
“It was my first day ever fasting from food and water and it was hard,” said Murphy, who was raised in what she described as a “loosely Christian tradition” and has now taken the Muslim name of Khadija. “But I’ve learned how to do tasbeeh [prayer beads], so I did that at work when I was feeling challenged.”
Murphy added that her boss at the pharmacy where she works is an observant Jew and an advocate for employees who practice their religion.
“She’s been very supportive of me when I needed a long break to pray and now, when I’m fasting, she encourages others to learn about how to be sensitive with me during Ramadan,” she said.
Asked about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, Murphy shrugged, insisting that this difficult period will pass.
“This country is really moving towards accepting Islam,” she said “That’s why there’s a big fuss with all the Islamophobic hooplah before it all dies out.”