Fasting for Charity During Ramadan

During the monthlong celebration of Ramadan, Muslim students at the University of Washington are encouraging their non-Muslim peers to fast for charity. The aim is to spread awareness of Islam within their college community.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. The Islamic month of fasting and devotion, Ramadan, is not just for Muslims anymore. On hundreds of American college campuses this month, non-Muslims are fasting along with their Muslim classmates. For non-Muslims, the annual Ramadan Fast-a-thon lasts just a day rather than an entire month. From Seattle, Chana Joffe-Walt has the story.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Zachia Kotter's(ph) friends from the Muslim student association at the University of Washington call her the All-Star Sister. The Fast-a-thon is the association's biggest event during Ramadan, and Kotter is the event's best promoter.

Ms. ZACHIA KOTTER (Student, University of Washington): Hey, you guys heard about the Fast-a-thon before? Skip your meal till six and we give you a free meal. Okay. You guys heard about the Fast-a-thon before?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, I have. Yeah.

Ms. KOTTER: Okay, are you guys doing it?

Unidentified Woman: I will be signing up.

Ms. KOTTER: Okay, good, good. Good call.

JOFFE-WALT: She's a small sophomore. She slides in between clusters of students on the campus lawn, pushing her way in front of them. She works them like a car salesman.

Ms. KOTTER: All you got to do is, you can pledge here. Just sign your name that you're going to do it. Simple as that - right here.

JOFFE-WALT: Students pledge to fast for one day as Muslims do all month. For each pledge, businesses donate money to local food banks.

Ms. KOTTER: You know about the walk-a-thon, remember, in elementary school?

Unidentified Man: What?

Ms. KOTTER: The walk-a-thon. It's the same idea. You should try it. We're pledging right here. All you do is sign your name that you're going to do it and it's as simple as that.

JOFFE-WALT: Kotter's reasons for being here are charitable and personal. A few weeks ago, she was followed across this lawn by a male student who asked her again and again if she had a gun under her headscarf. She says that kind of comment doesn't upset her. It's just a reminder that she needs to work harder to educate people about her religion. She says the Fast-a-thon is a way for students to learn about who Muslims really are.

Ms. KOTTER: Everybody is talking Islam, and so they don't feel like they are going to offend you if they ask you since they're already at an event that's based around that topic.

JOFFE-WALT: Today at the University of Washington, over 300 students are fasting - a large number roped in by Kotter. Many say they do have a lot of questions about Islam.

Do you know much about Ramadan?

Ms. DORIS SANG(ph) (Student, University of Washington): Not really, but I don't have anything against anyone.

Mr. ROB MUHLENBERG(ph) (Student, University of Washington): It plays a role in world politics when wars are going on around this time. But other than that, no. Not really.

Ms. SHOSHANNA BILLIC(ph) (Student, University of Washington): Some. I mean, I know it's like the Muslim Holy month, and that's about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOFFE-WALT: Doris Sang, Rob Muhlenberg and Shoshanna Billic all say there are interested in learning more about Islam.

Several students say they signed up because Muslim friends encouraged them to. One woman says she is too busy to eat anyway, so why not?

And many were attracted to the charitable aspect of the event, like Junior Sasha Botos(ph).

Ms. SASHA BOTOS (Student, University of Washington): We have so much. We're here at like, this big university and a lot of people don't have nearly as many opportunities as we have. So it's just a relatively easy thing to like give up to help out someone else.

JOFFE-WALT: And the connection to Ramadan?

Ms. BOTOS: That's interesting, but, I mean, I'm not really doing it for like those reasons, so.

JOFFE-WALT: Azus Jewnaygo(ph) is a local spokesperson for Seattle's Muslim community. He's thrilled about the Fast-a-thon and the student's efforts, but says not all Muslims are.

Mr. AZUS JEWNAYGO (Muslim Spokesperson, Seattle): Many of our community - I would say a good percentage of our community - they say people if don't know about Islam, then it is their obligation to learn about it. We shouldn't feel guilty about anything.

JOFFE-WALT: Fast-a-thon organizer Zakariya Dehlawi says that's an attitude of the past.

Mr. ZAKARIYA DEHLAWI (Fast-a-thon Organizer, University of Washington): In my opinion, we don't have a choice whether we should or want to combat this type of misinformation that is put out by the media and put out by certain hate groups and such like that. If we don't challenge it, people are going to have this idea of us, and we're not going to be able to survive in this society.

JOFFE-WALT: A 2006 poll by the Council for American-Islamic Relations indicated there's been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment since 9/11. But the majority of respondents did say that their attitudes would change if they saw more American Muslims showing an interest in the concerns of ordinary Americans. Muslim student Hassan Hatim(ph) says showing an interest is what the Fast-a-thon's all about.

Mr. HASSAN HATIM (Student, University of Washington): The West is the best place to move things, whether it be good or bad in the world. We have the resources, the support, and people are open-minded enough to listen. What we do hear reverberates throughout the rest of the world tenfold, and so it's a responsibility.

JOFFE-WALT: Hatim says a university is where you seek truth. It's up to us Muslims, he says, to make sure our version of the truth is available. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.

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