Combating hate amid a pandemic: How a Ramadan tradition is building bridges in the US

Some mosques are hosting virtual events to bring people together.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially shut down the more than 2,000 mosques in the U.S. and in-person gatherings are not possible, some mosques and organizations are hosting virtual events to bring people together.

"Islamophobia has been on the rise especially in political seasons, in election seasons, and interfaith dialogue brings us together," Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, told ABC News, adding that when it comes to engaging in social justice issues for Muslims, Ramadan is "usually the most active time of the year."

Three Muslim members of Congress -- Democratic lawmakers Andre Carson of Indiana, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan -- are co-hosting a virtual national iftar on Tuesday evening. They will also be joined by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison – a former U.S. congressman and the first Muslim to win an election for a statewide office in the U.S.

The iftar -- or breaking of the fast dinner -- is organized by Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization, and is expected to be attended by people of diverse faiths, the group's CEO, Farhana Khera, told ABC News.

"We think doing these events is an important opportunity to share with non-Muslim allies a little bit about who we are as a community," Khera said, "and so, we purposefully geared this event in a way that it's welcoming of both Muslims and non-Muslims from across the country."

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told ABC News that although "this will be somewhat of a gap year in terms of opportunity for widespread interfaith dialogue," many mosques and local leaders are planning virtual gatherings to reach out to the wider community.

Why interfaith dialogue is needed

According to an ABC News analysis of FBI hate crime reports over the past 20 years, the number of victims of hate crimes motivated by anti-Muslim bias peaked in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, then fell over the next decade, but has been on the rise since 2010.

Mitchell said although hate crime data is vastly underreported, "the trend lines are likely accurate, and are beneficial to kind of tell us what direction we're going in," adding that CAIR's own data suggests similar trends over the past 20 years.

Last month, prosecutors charged a 42-year-old Missouri man with a hate crime after he was accused of setting fire to the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau. And according to CAIR, between 2014 and June 2019, there were 506 attacks and harassment incidents targeting mosques or Islamic religious sites in the U.S.

And this Ramadan, some Muslim organizations have been experiencing anti-Muslim attacks during Zoom video conferences and gatherings, often referred to as Zoom-bombings, Khera said.

"Every attack on a mosque serves as a reminder of the importance of building bridges through communities. It is very hard to hate people when you know a little bit about them," Mitchell said.

How interfaith dialogue became a Ramadan White House tradition

Each year during Ramadan, Muslim communities participate in iftar events with state and local officials. The U.S. military and the White House also host events to mark the holy month.

Imam Lt. Col. Dawud Agbere, one of seven Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Army, spoke at the White House iftar dinner hosted by President Donald Trump in June 2018 and told ABC News that hosting Ramadan celebrations at the national level is "very important" because it acknowledges the "unique religious landscape we have here in America."

Agbere was an Imam in Ghana, where he was born and raised before he moved to the U.S. in 1995. He has been serving in the Army for the past 21 years and has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he worked to bridge the cultural divide and support U.S. soldiers of all faiths.

"For me to be at the White House in my uniform, the only person in uniform, I think that sends a very good positive impression to the world -- that yes, Muslims belong here and the country appreciates their contributions to the country and to our national defense," Agbere said.

But the tradition of celebrating Ramadan at the White House with the president is relatively new and only began a couple of decades ago.

First lady Hillary Clinton was the first to hold a dinner at the White House to mark Eid al-Fitr -- the end of the holy month of Ramadan -- in 1996.

Mona Mohib, who will be participating in the national iftar Tuesday evening, worked at the White House from 1997 to 1999 and was part of the team that organized the Eid celebrations.

"Our events at the White House really were a wonderful way to celebrate how Muslim Americans are a vibrant part of this nation's diverse fabric," she told ABC News. "For the White House to host it, it's obviously giving a visibility to a community that maybe not all people have relationships with or understand."

President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to host an Eid dinner in March 2000, launching a White House tradition that brought Muslim leaders, diplomats and lawmakers together for an interfaith experience. Hendi, who became the first Muslim chaplain at a U.S. university in 1999, was invited to speak at the event.

"When I came to Georgetown I felt one of my mandates would be to really engage the intellectual community and the academic community in America with Islam," Hendi said, adding that rising Islamophobia after 9/11 made the need for interfaith dialogue even more urgent.

Trump broke with tradition in 2017 when the White House did not host an iftar or Eid celebration dinner to mark Ramadan.

The Trump White House did host iftar events in 2018 and 2019, but amid tensions with the Muslim community over the administration's policies, including the travel ban and the president's rhetoric about Islam, the guest list did not include community leaders but consisted of White House officials and various diplomats from Muslim-majority countries.

This year the White House released a statement to mark the beginning of Ramadan, but so far Trump has not made any remarks in person or on social media to mark the occasion.

Social distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic have limited the number and nature of events at the White House. Is it unclear if the Trump administration will host a Ramadan event this year. ABC News has reached out to the White House for comment.

"American Muslims have always been a part of the fabric of America. American Muslims serve in the military, American Muslims contribute to the economy of this country," Hendi said and as Muslim heath care workers "are fighting minute by minute" with their fellow Americans to battle the pandemic, "the least that the White House – the president can do is to say thank you for your service."

Agbere, who is currently stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, said that during Ramadan he has been receiving calls from Army chaplains stationed "all over the world" who are seeking advice on how they can "take care" of their Muslim soldiers during the holy month.

In the Army Chaplain Corps, a chaplain is responsible for providing religious and spiritual support to soldiers of all faiths and backgrounds and according to Agbere, "interfaith dialogue" and a focus on "our common humanity" is at the heart of the chaplaincy.

"Even the Quran emphasizes that differences will always be there, but what is important is how we treat each other," Agbere said. "I tell my soldiers, if you go out there and find somebody on the ground hurting, the last question you ask them is, what is your faith? What is your tribe? What is your ethnicity? No, you don't do that. The first thing you do is 'how can I help you?'"

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