The West could benefit from the spirit of Ramadan

The West could benefit from the spirit of Ramadan. Here's how
5 min read
17 May, 2019
Comment: The community spirit around the month of Ramadan reminds me, as a non-Muslim, what our society has lost, writes CJ Werleman.
Muslims in New York hold iftar at the foot of Trump Tower during Ramadan [Getty]

A decade ago, while living and working in Jakarta, Indonesia - the capital city of the world's most populous Muslim majority country - I participated in the month long Ramadan fasting at the urging of my Indonesian friends.

My effort to eat and drink only in the hours before sunrise and after sunset, however, lasted all of a week, before I gave in to the odd midday snack along with my usual intake of water. Complying with the principles of Ramadan was one of the hardest things I have ever set out to accomplish, and I failed miserably.

The experience, however, gave me a renewed appreciation of the faith, particularly as there's something undeniably beautiful and moving about a collective commitment to either a purpose greater than oneself, or a quest to heal the individual and community through appeals to a just, high power.

"There's definitely a sense of respect for the fact that we are sacrificing food and water for such a huge part of the day, and then the time of breaking fast (Iftar) represents a  unique opportunity to sit down with community members and allies – and everyone else is able to connect over a shared meal," Imraan Siddiqi, executive director for CAIR, Arizona, told me.

I'm not a religious person, and until I experience my very own Damascene moment, I'll continue to doubt the probability there's a cosmic power guiding and shaping the events and whims of the observable universe. But when I see Muslims around the world coming together during Ramadan, it makes me realise how much our communities have lost with the decline of religion and rise of secular nationalism.

Today's younger generation seem more isolated and disconnected from each other than ever before

For clarification, by "religion", I'm referring to a personal and private commitment to God, and not the highly public and political perversion of faith we see among fundamentalist groups like the Christian right, or the Islamic State group.

Certainly, lamenting the decline of religious belief may not reflect the western trend towards secularism. But when I look at today's younger generation - one that is far less religious than any of its predecessors, and one I have a front row seat on with a son and daughter aged 23 and 18 respectively - they seem more isolated and disconnected from each other than ever before.

Paradoxically, the more connected we, as a society, become online, the more disconnected we become from each other offline, or rather in our real day-to-day lives. Essentially, we are losing a sense of community or collective purpose, that can make us feel alone and inconsequential.

"Ramadan is a potent month that inspires Muslims to see beyond their individual circumstances, and cooperate with groups to uplift the most vulnerable members of the community," Professor Khaled Beydoun, and author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, told me.

While correlation must never be mistaken for causation, there's no denying the fact that the decline of religious belief in the United States and most parts of the western world is happening at the same time as suicide, drug abuse and mental health issues spike upwards.

Nearly 50 percent of all Americans aged 18-44 now identify as non-religious, which is more than double the number among those aged 65 and older (21 percent), with fewer than half of the entire country now considering religion to be "extremely" or "very" important in their day-to-day lives.

Ramadan might serve as a reminder that our manic pursuit of individual material success is placing distance between us and our community

Now consider what can only be described as a multidimensional socio-psychological crisis plaguing millennials and gen-exers. Not only has the rate of suicide in the US has risen sharply since the 90s, but so has the rate of drug overdose deaths.

A report published by the American Psychological Association's Journal of Abnormal Psychology last month, found that in the past decade or so, "the number of people reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 52 percent among 12 to 17-year-olds and 63 percent among 18 to 25-year-olds; the rate for both groups is now 13.2 percent."

The point here is that as our society experiences a profound crisis, for a multitude of reasons, religion or even the month long observance of Ramadan might serve as a reminder that our manic pursuit of individual material success is placing distance between us and our community, and ultimately leading us towards despair.

Read more: Top 6 iftar spots in London: Where to break your fast

In his seminal book American Mania: When More is Not Enough, Dr Peter Whybrow, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), depicts the United States as a nation consumed by the never-ending pursuit of financial gain, driven by an insatiable need for a bigger, better job that will provide them a bigger home in a better neighbourhood that's accompanied with the latest and greatest technological gadgets.

This, in turn, is leading Americans to emotional and psychological exhaustion, and preventing them from spending more time relaxing with their families and friends. Isolation and a feeling of purposeless in life are the twin enemies of the individual mind.

It's here that extremist groups scout for potential new recruits, tailoring their propaganda with promises of belonging and the articulation of meaningful life, full of national flags and patriotic songs.

If this point needs furthering, then consider that the United States is also now besieged by a white nationalist domestic terror crisis, with 100 percent of all extremist related killings (terrorism) on US soil in the past 18 months carried out by right-wing individuals or organisations.

In writing this, I hope to invite discussion, rather than provide a bulletproof explanation to all of these complex social dynamics.

Today, I appreciate the role religion has played in knitting our communities together by acting as an adhesive agent. And I shudder at the thought that compulsory submission to the nation-state might very well soon replace voluntary prostration before God, for that seems to be where many of us are heading.

For this reason I'm thankful and appreciative of Ramadan; a time to appreciate what ties communities together, not sets them apart.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.