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President Donald Trump wants you to keep your eyes on me. Specifically, with Ramadan set to begin tonight, he wants your eyes on me and other Muslims who will be fasting for the holy month. Holed up in the White House, Trump has taken to retweeting conspiratorial posts by famed Islamophobes, questioning whether or not Muslims will get “special treatment” in the coming weeks, compared with Christians whose churches were ordered to close for Easter. Asked about the tweet at one of his incoherent press conferences, Trump said, “The Christian faith is treated much differently than it was, and I think it is treated very unfairly.” He then started rambling about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar.
His latest call to be suspicious of what the Muslims are up to isn’t even a dog whistle; he’s just saying it out loud. From his past campaigns of Islamophobia, we know comments like these can lead to a spike in anti-Muslim violence. But what makes this one especially idiotic and lazy is that he’s the one who has been encouraging people to defy stay-at-home orders. Muslim American leaders have been united in closing masjid doors since mid-March, and nobody seems to be in any rush to open them back up. The more tech-savvy imams have migrated their Friday sermons to Zoom meetings and are collecting money for various COVID-related charities. The holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba, has been entirely sealed off, and it will stay that way for Ramadan. The Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia, whom a whole lot of Muslims listen to, decreed that Ramadan prayers will happen at home as long as the virus persists. Other Muslim religious leaders have made similar fatwas.
I will miss it all, though. During Ramadan, when the sun does go down, Muslims typically break fast with a big delicious meal that both rewards patience and gives us an opportunity to break bread with the folks closest to us. When I was a kid, it was at my mom’s dinner table with the whole family. Now that I’m living away from home, I share a meal with anyone who hasn’t had dinner yet. When I’m feeling especially Muslim, I stop by the mosque for a free plate of food, and the supererogatory Ramadan evening prayer called Taraweeh.
This year, COVID-19 has changed that. Every Muslim I know is planning to stay home. Communal meals will be smaller. No one is arguing that God will shield us if we gather to break fast.
As dumb as they are, it’s strange how Trump’s insinuations sting less than they would have a couple of years ago. This is a deeply spiritual period for Muslims. Preparing for a 30-day fast doesn’t end at stocking up on fava beans, pita bread, and coconut water. It requires a slow building of intention. For me, sheltering in place for weeks has refocused my attention to my local community in New Jersey and New York. I’ve grown out my beard and have completely forgotten that I’ve been afraid of growing it too long for its potential to invite judgments over how religious I am, and whether or not being a religious Muslim turns me into a liability. Inside my home, COVID-19 can’t reach me, and neither can Trump’s Islamophobia.
The president has made it clear that he’s intent on opening the country up prematurely, and his own experts have repeatedly warned that doing so would jeopardize all of the progress we’ve made so far in the fight against the virus. Because Trump isn’t interested in being a part of a long-lasting solution, he and his bigotry have become irrelevant to me—I’ve never felt more empowered to ignore him.
Even though the mosques will remain closed and my family members are self-quarantining in their own homes, I’m still very excited for the next month. I miss my mother’s cooking. There’s no replacing that experience. And praying at home will never replace praying shoulder to shoulder with other Muslims at the masjid. But I do have some lights and lanterns left over from last year that my wife and I are planning on hanging around the house. Our mosques are organizing those community Zoom meetings that I look forward to, too. I’ve always seen Ramadan as an opportunity to reinvigorate my faith and rekindle connections to the people I love. Like all of us, I have accepted that things will be different this year. I feel almost ready for tonight. All I need is a little bit more pita bread.