At a time when relations between the US and the majority of the Muslim world are severely strained, many in the Muslim American community viewed Ramadan as an opportunity to debunk negative stereotypes while educating people on Islamic practice.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) led the way with Sharing Ramadan, a campaign in which it called on mosques and Muslim centres to hold open houses and community iftars (meals breaking fast) designed to give non-Muslims a glimpse of Islam.

Cair spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said the programme had bolstered outreach efforts undertaken by American Muslims since the 11 September 2001 attacks.

"I think it has been a tremendous success in terms of reaching out to people of different faiths," Hooper said.

Ignorance

Ramadan happened to follow a study by Cair that showed that roughly one in four Americans holds anti-Muslim views of some kind, a trend underpinned by an overall lack of knowledge about Islam, Hooper said.

Community meals held to give
non-Muslims a glimpse of Islam

"The other finding was that bias decreased with finding out about Islam and knowing Muslims," he said.

Sharing Ramadan gave local officials and residents with questions the opportunity to see inside a mosque for the first time, while eating with Muslim representatives in their community.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 150 people attended an interfaith iftar sponsored by Cair in early November, while 500 guests gathered for a similar event in Jacksonville, Florida. The US House of Representatives also got in on the act, holding an iftar on Capitol Hill that was attended by 10 representatives and more than 150 congressional staff members.

Prejudice

"We were hoping to dispel stereotypes and put our faith in action by sharing the wonderful Ramadan iftar with non-Muslims and the general public," said Ahmed Bedier, a spokesman for Cair's Florida chapter.

Muslims praying on the last
Friday of Ramadan in New York

Bedier said some non-Muslim residents at the event said their attitudes about Islam had changed over the course of the night.

"This was the process by which they were trying to overcome their fears and they were happy they made the move," he said.

While Cair launched the Sharing Ramadan programme this year, leaders from other Muslim groups stressed that interfaith outreach activities have been ongoing for years, even decades.

Ongoing project

Farzad Darui, manager of the Islamic Centre of Washington, an institution founded in 1949, said the centre receives approximately 100,000 visitors a year and offers courses for non-Muslims on Islam, the Quran and Arabic as a second language. The goal, he said, is to offer year-round opportunities for people who want to learn about Islam.

Leaders say interfaith outreach 
has been going on for years

"We live in communities, so we always have to promote better ties and a better understanding of our religion," Darui said.

As an estimated 10,000 Muslims crowded into the small grounds of the Islamic Centre for the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, Darui gleamed with enthusiasm as he spoke of the hundreds of flowers left in front of the centre after 9/11.

He believes American Muslims are gaining greater acceptance socially and politically, something that makes outreach programmes even more important.

"As we go on in the future, Muslim significance in the US will increase," he said.