Interpreting, Observing Ramadan

The Beauty Shop women discuss the meaning of Ramadan, and the new Gallup poll that says Muslims are more optimistic than any other religious group in America. Host Michel Martin hears from "My Faith My Voice" Board Member Rabiah Ahmed, "Crosscurrents" Co-host Hana Baba, and author Asra Nomani, who teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for the Beauty Shop, where we talk about topics that we think could use a woman's touch. And today as Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday, we decided to invite an all-Muslim panel. We'll talk about Ramadan and what it means to each of our guests.

We also want to follow up on a conversation we began last week with some of our other guests about this debate over multiculturalism and Islamaphobia that's been going on in many countries around the world. And we also want to talk about an interesting new poll from the Gallup organization that finds that Muslim-Americans tend to feel very good about where they are in this country and where they are headed. And we'd like to see if our guests agree.

Here to talk about all of that, Rabiah Ahmed. She's a board member for My Faith My Voice, which is an online platform for American-Muslims. Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She's a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She's the author of most recently, "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." And she's also one of our moms regulars. And Hana Baba is the co-host of member station KALW's news program Crosscurrents.

Welcome, ladies. Thank you so much for joining us.

RABIAH AHMED: Hey, thanks, Michel.

ASRA NOMANI: Thank you.

HANA BABA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, this year there's an online feed from Mecca. I don't know if any of you have checked it out. It's on YouTube where you can - anybody actually can listen to - watch and listen to prayers in Mecca throughout the month of Ramadan. And many people see this as a way to connect Muslims from all over the world. And also because (unintelligible) is a closed city. One is not allowed in unless one is Muslim and can attest to being a Muslim.

So I just want to play a short clip for those who might like to experience this. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language)

MARTIN: So I was - what do you think? Rabiah, what do you think?

AHMED: I think it's beautiful. I mean, I've actually seen televised clips of this before. I think that, well, you mentioned, it is a relatively closed area. They have become a lot more open in the last few years. And with technology bringing, you know, the world together, we're seeing different forms of that. So, yeah, no, it's really nice.

MARTIN: What do you think, Asra?

NOMANI: Well, I see an irony. I mean, there's a great romantic appeal to that kind of audio and a visual. But at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is a place where women can't drive. My mother and I went on the Hajj and we couldn't go except with my father as a chaperone. When my nephew was hungry, she had to sneak out to the Kentucky Fried Chicken where Colonel Sanders doesn't show up because the image is not allowed.

Saudi Arabia is the, you know, birthplace of Islam and it is probably the most, you know, ridiculous interpretation of Islam in the world. And to romanticize it to me is just, you know, sad.

MARTIN: OK. Well, you think that's romanticizing it, just offering access to it? I mean, is it different from a recording of gospel music for example?

NOMANI: Well, if I listen...

MARTIN: Which isn't sacred, per say. Well, it can be sacred. It has a sacred context.

NOMANI: But, I, as a person who isn't Christian, can go into a church and listen to that choir. You as a person who is not Muslim, you're going to go on that interstate that I went on from Jeddah to Mecca and you're going to see an exit ramp and it's going to say non-Muslims.

MARTIN: I see.

NOMANI: And to me that's the deeper, deeper, you know, issue that we've got, rather than these televised, electronic, you know, communications that they're pretending means access.

MARTIN: OK. Hana, what about you? What do you think?

BABA: Yeah. I think I fall somewhere in the middle there. Me and many of my Muslim family and friends continually say, you know, the only thing we love about Saudi Arabia, the only thing we tolerate about Saudi Arabia is the fact that Mecca is there. And the fact that it is a sacred place in that regard.

Everything else I can do without. So it's kind of mixed for me, I guess. It's beautiful hearing kind of the Quran coming out of, you know, the imam in the masjid there. And it's very special for Muslims worldwide. But, you know, I understand Asra's point in that it's kind of bittersweet for a woman, especially.

But I think during Ramadan, people - Muslims manage to kind of make as - a - kind of a distinction between the spiritual, religious aspect, and they just kind of dwell in that for little bit, maybe, temporarily, setting aside what, you know, what being a woman in Saudi Arabia means.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, I wanted to ask, you know, many religions around the world undertake a period of, you know fasting and focus spiritual reflection. And many people have looked for ways to make that observance more directly relevant to the way they live now. And I wanted to ask each of you about Ramadan, and do you observe it in the same way that you did when you were a child? Does it have a different meaning to you now, now that you're, you know, adult? I don't know. Rabiah, what about you?

AHMED: Absolutely. I mean, I don't think we fully appreciate just what an opportunity it is for us to kind of reflect on our lives, on our spiritual relationship with God. It is a time for endless blessings. And as an adult, I definitely make use of it more and get a lot more out of it.

MARTIN: Do you do anything differently than you did when you were a child? I know some people, for example, Christians - not to draw, you know, direct analysis, but some people during Lent, for example, Lent is a period of intense, you know, renunciation. But other people are using it now to sort of do things like, for example, give up social media.

AHMED: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, some people say that that's - or to give up smoking as a way to focus their reflections. Do you do something different now than you used to?

AHMED: Absolutely. I mean, as Muslims, we believe that the month of Ramadan is a holy time of the year, and so every minute that you spend in worship or reflection is blessed. And so when you have that, you know, finite period of time, you want to make sure that you make use of it in the best way possible. So, you know, Facebooking doesn't seem as important. Watching TV doesn't seem as important. You really just want to make the most out of that time.

MARTIN: Asra, what about you?

NOMANI: Well, you know, I have the sweetest memories going back to childhood of waking up with my father for the breakfast meal that's called sari(ph). We would have a bowl of Wheaties, because Bruce Jenner was my champion and I loved him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NOMANI: And, you know, then we'd break fast, and my mother would make this awesome lassi yogurt drink, right. And I, with devotion, did my prayers. But, you know, this was a childhood of the '70s, when we had exporting out of Saudi Arabia - you know, the country we've just been talking about - this interpretation of Islam that's, like, basically I think corrupted our world.

And what I realize is, you know, this point that Hana was just making that Ramadan is this month of reflection, right? We are so fixated on these rituals, like so many religions have and so many people have been, that we have lost our spirit. And as a community and as a religion, we are down in the dumps. I mean, we are in the dark ages. We're in a pathetic place in the...

MARTIN: You're talking about Muslims worldwide, or are you talking about...

NOMANI: Worldwide.

MARTIN: Really?

NOMANI: I mean, I say worldwide because...

MARTIN: What's your evidence of that?

NOMANI: Oh, my gosh. I mean, it's just like, where do you end up, you know, reading headlines out of communities where a young convert in Australia is lashed by other Muslims because he's up, you know, drinking alcohol and he's breaking the sacred rule of not drinking alcohol? Or where a girl is, you know, punished because he strand of her hair is showing, in Saudi Arabia?

I mean, we - I don't believe that we are rising to the highest principles of our faith worldwide. And I know that each one of the struggles to do that. But we are - we have to just take a step back, and this thing that we're supposed to do during this month of Ramadan, we're not doing year-round and we're not doing decades long. We're still stuck in this interpretation of Islam that I think is so dark ages, you know? And to me, that's our deeper struggle. That's our deeper spiritual struggle, as a community, that we have to get out of.

And so that sort of that passion that I had for the ritual is really lost for me, because what I see is that we're not practicing spirit of the faith. And that's what is the greatest sadness to me.

MARTIN: If you're just - Hana, I want to hear from you on this. But if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having our visit to the Beauty Shop. We're having a special Muslim Beauty Shop in observance of Ramadan, which we were just talking about.

With us are Rabiah Ahmed, Asra Nomani and Hana Baba. Hana, what about you? What do you think about Ramadan? Does it mean something different to you now than it did when you were younger?

BABA: Right. I mean, when we were children - I have daughters now, young daughters. And it was - we saw the grown-ups suffer...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BABA: ...and fast during the day. And for us, you know, it was a time when, you know, things were calmer at home and we'd look forward to that evening meal with the family, and people kind of prayed more, and it was a calmer time. And we always looked forward to the end of Ramadan, because then we'd have our big Eid celebration. And, you know, that brought all kinds of presents and gifts and goodies.

As an adult, I do see many Muslims kind of, on the first day of Ramadan, say - excuse me - on Facebook, bye, and see you in 30 days, you know. Or I'm going to quit this or that during Ramadan. But then what about after? You know, for me, if you feel that something is distracting you from your spiritual practice or your religious practice during one month, what would make you kind of not do that for the rest of the year? And so my problem usually is consistency...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BABA: ...with when people are...

MARTIN: But don't we all have that faith? And doesn't anybody have that faith? Anybody who aspires to a higher state of awareness, from whatever discipline one approaches it? Whether it's the - don't we all have that of - you know, Christians have a saying, you know, we all fall short of the glory of God.

BABA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: That's not unique to Islam is it?

BABA: No. And I think...

MARTIN: Asra?

NOMANI: No, I don't think so at all. I mean, this is our universal struggle as communities, as societies, as individual. In Islam, you know, we call it Jihad-un-Nafs. It's the struggle of the soul, right, the struggle of the soul. The Nafs is the soul, and the soul is our attempt to reach for that higher space that's transcending all of these attachments. And I think it's a struggle of all communities, also.

MARTIN: But, you know, I wanted to get your point - Asra is Debbie Downer today. I don't know what's up with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NOMANI: I think she's hungry.

MARTIN: She's hungry and thirsty. But...

NOMANI: But I'm not, so I'm the buzz-kill.

MARTIN: But there's - a study was published this week by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center. The Gallup, of course, is a worldwide polling organization, and there's a unit in Abu Dhabi. And it says - and it was a survey of Muslim-Americans. And it pointed out that Muslim-Americans are generally satisfied with their lives, are optimistic, are in fact more optimistic than people who are attached to other religious groups, and also atheists. In fact, they - it says Americans in every major religious group rate their current lives about equally. But Muslim-Americans are unique in the level of optimism that they express about the future, that no other religious group expects things to improve as much as do Muslim-Americans.

It also pointed out that young people have recovered the optimism that they had had before 9/11. As we've discussed, there has been a lot of challenges for Muslim-Americans in that period. It says, of particular notice, the improvement in Muslim-Americans life evaluations between 2008 and 2011. So, you know, what do we make of this? I don't know, Rabiah, I'll start with you again.

AHMED: Well, I think it makes sense.

MARTIN: It's also worth pointing out that Muslims are among the most diverse - racially diverse of all religious inherent in the United States. Mm-hmm.

AHMED: Right. Right. I mean, 10 years now after 9/11, I think the community has had time to kind of absorb the aftermath, the effects and the consequences it's played on our community, and we are in the mode of building our community, of integrating, of engaging people. And that all inspires hope in the future. And so I feel like that's very reflective of the pulse on the community.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Asra, I know you have a different perspective, because you've talked about this. But go ahead.

NOMANI: Yeah. You know, I think that things are good for Muslims, you know?

MARTIN: Are or are not?

NOMANI: I think they are. And I think that, you know, that we have to - I'm glad that those polling results reflect that, because oftentimes, you know, we are a community that loves to complain, like a lot of communities do, and complain about the grievances of past generations and decades before, colonialism and whatnot, going back through the centuries. And I wish we would focus on how great things are, really, for our communities, especially in the West, so that we wouldn't be fixated on these grievances of the past.

MARTIN: Hana, what about you?

BABA: Right. I think, you know, that this reflects, really, an optimism in the community. I see it around me in that well culturally also the Muslim community is a very diverse community ethnically, but there is this kind of uniquely cultural aspect where we say, you know, God willing, everything will be okay. Inshallah, everything will be okay. And there's a sense that, you know, if today was bad, tomorrow will be better and better and better, and you have to have faith in God that - and in yourself that things will be better. And so it's - I think it's a basic kind of principle and a basic tenet that we have.

Also, I feel the - I don't - I'm not sure when the last time this research was done, but there's a huge difference between how Muslims felt during the Bush administration and during the Obama administration, as well. I feel Obama's presidency, his famous speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, you know, kind of built this trust in the sense that huh, a little bit of relief. Things might be going in a different way in regards to American Muslims.

MARTIN: And Asra, though, can you contrast this with the conversation we had last week about what's going on in Europe, you know, that those terror - those awful terror attacks in Norway where the assailant acknowledged that he did this in part to punish his fellow Europeans for, in his view, being too tolerant. He says he wanted to start a war, basically...

NOMANI: Right.

MARTIN: ...to prevent what he said was a looming Muslim takeover of Europe. And I just wonder, how does an incident like that affect your consciousness about things?

NOMANI: Well, what I feel like is the fundamental issue is that we as a community have to decide whether we're literally going to live in ghettos in our own, you know, multicultural spaces, or we're going to isolate ourselves culturally, you know, in the habits that we have, in the way that we look, in the things that we demand, even, from the society. And I think that some of the things that are playing out in Europe are a result of people really literally living in these immigrant ghettos, these places where there's a different value system. There's a different law, even, that is practiced inside of those communities.

And that is something that, you know, I think in America, we've been able to manage. My family and I went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert last week. I mean, we can't assimilate I think any better than, you know, seeing that. And my mom was as fascinated by the audience as the band, because she's exposed to this for the first time. And, you know, this is, I think, the opportunity that we've got that is also Islamic, of opening ourselves up and not having those exit ramps that mean that other people have to be outside of our communities.

MARTIN: I want to point out it's a two-way street, because obviously, many Muslims also report that they are also subjected to a lot of discrimination which keeps them in ghettos. So it's kind of a two-way conversation, a conversation which will continue, and I hope we'll continue to have it.

Asra Nomani and Rabiah Ahmed joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Hana Baba joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco. Ladies, thank you all so much. I don't know what the right greeting is for Ramadan, but Rabiah, what's the right reading for Ramadan?

AHMED: Ramadan Mubarak or Ramadan Kareem.

MARTIN: Ramadan Mubarak to you all.

AHMED: Thank you.

NOMANI: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us.

BABA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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