The month of Ramadan begins Tuesday or Wednesday depending on what part of the world you are in, and what method of determining the start of the month you use (calculations or moonsighting).
With its dawn to sunset fasting, and extra emphasis on the human-Divine relationship, Ramadan is a time for reflection, self-improvement, and spiritual development. This year there is much for the Muslim world to reflect upon — from the horrific slayings of doctors in Afghanistan this last week, to the spread of Wahhabi-style views into traditional liberal and tolerant communities, to rampant misogyny, homophobia and racism within our communities.
The most important challenge as I see it is for moderate, liberal, secular, and progressive Muslims to set aside their differences in approach, their different legal views and differing spiritual practices, in order to work together to articulate and promote our common view of Islam as a religion of peace and lasting values — compassion, equality, justice, honesty, humility. As long as we remain divided among ourselves, those who are promoting extreme views will continue to win converts to their cause.
The second challenge is for those of us who live in America to continue to advocate for America to live up to her values. As long as America is seen as a country on a vendetta against Muslims, extremists will have ample fodder for their campaign to win Muslim hearts.
The essential element to both of these agendas has got to be engagement and education. Many moderate Muslims look with suspicion upon progressive Muslims, accusing us of trying to change the faith, and upon secular Muslims, feeling that they are not committed to Islam. Progressives and secularists in turn are likely to view moderates with the fear that they are closet Islamists or extremists. In the Christian world, interfaith dialogue began wth talks between different branches of Christianity. Muslims need to do this as well. While there have been some attempts to do so among Sunni and Shi’i Muslims in America, our efforts to cohere as a community need to be far more wide-reaching and intensive, crossing not only the Sunni/Shiia/Sufi divide but also philosophical divides within those groups.
So too, we need to reach out to our American neighbors, again, to engage and educate. The more Americans know Muslims of different stripes, and of the mainstream, the more they will learn that there is nothing to fear. The more American Muslims engage in this society, the more effective we will be, both at communicating that message and at influencing policy decisions that impact America and its relationship with the Muslim world.
There are, of course, hundreds of thousands of people engaged in just this sort of initiative, both Muslim and non-Muslim. To these good folks, I say keep up the hard work. For the rest of us, let us use this Ramadan, this time of spiritual recommitment and personal rededication to the Divine, as a time to extend ourselves a little more to our neighbors, both Muslim and non-Muslim.