Celebrating diversity: Ramadan 2014 in Philadelphia

PCHR Commissioner Saadiq Garner juggles a lot as a civic-minded entrepreneur, and has been particularly busy on another front as of late – helping to strengthen ties between the city’s Muslim population and the broader public.

Councilman Jones and Saadiq Garner

City Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. shares a word with PCHR Commissioner Saadiq Garner during the 2nd Annual Philadelphia City Hall Iftar.

This week, he did so by participating in a public Iftar – or, breaking of fast – hosted by City Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr.  This is the midway point of Ramadan, the annual time of prayer, fasting, and personal reflection observed by Muslims throughout the world.

The Iftar usually occurs privately among family and friends in homes, but this public event helped to offer yet another example of the city’s commitment to its roots of religious and cultural tolerance, Garner said.

“Philadelphia is a place where building community means encompassing everybody, and the engagement of Muslims at such an event in City Hall shows that the presence is strong and respected,” he said.

At Tuesday’s Iftar, Mayor Michael A. Nutter and City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown were among the many elected officials in attendance, where dozens of people of all faiths gathered. Meanwhile, Al-Aqsa Islamic Society hosted an interfaith Iftar, featuring Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders — with plenty of discussion about world affairs, such as events in Syria and Gaza, and a lot of good food.

The Greater Philadelphia area is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Americans who practice Islam, with Philadelphia ranking fourth among the top 10 U.S. cities with highest Muslim populations.

During Ramadan, Muslims are called to engage in acts of charity, and many heeded that call last Saturday as the Council on American-Islamic Relations powered a produce drive in conjunction with Philabundance and the Masjidullah Center for Human Excellence. Organizers wanted to encourage participants to be more thoughtful than just grabbing a dented can or an old bag of beans from the pantry, asking instead for cabbage, carrots, apples, oranges, sweet potatoes and oranges.

Masjids — houses of worship — across the city responded, donating some 3,850 pounds of fruits and vegetables.

Amatullah Brown (l.), a 15-year-old Central High School student, joins her friend Noor Borwman (r.), a 13-year-old PA Cyber Charter School student, in hoisting some of the produce donations amassed by area Muslims as part of Ramadan.

Amatullah Brown (l.), a 15-year-old Central High School student, joins her friend Noor Borwman (r.), a 13-year-old PA Cyber Charter School student, in hoisting some of the produce donations amassed by area Muslims as part of Ramadan.

The donations went to Upper Room Mission in the Ogontz section of town. Hundreds of people received meals made from the food as well as others who took bags of produce home.

“This is God’s work, showing what Islam is all about,” said Dr. Katera Y. Moore of CAIR-Philadelphia. “We’re Muslims, but we raised money for food that was donated to a church. Hunger is a social issue, a political issue, one that hits everybody – Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist, everybody.”

These kinds of acts, standard in observances of Ramadan, seldom get mainstream attention, allowing caricatures and stereotypes to pervade, Garner said. But this season, area Muslims made a concerted effort to increase the visibility of their contributions among their neighbors, to increase understanding.

“Sometimes you hear so many negative things about Islam, and people in areas where there isn’t as strong of a Muslim presence go by what they hear,” Garner said. “But an event like this kills off the negativity and highlights the diversity among Muslims and their way of life.

“It’s not about terrorists, or right-wing thinkers or left-wing thinkers. It’s about people who understand Islam properly and are benefiting from it and sharing that positivity.”

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