However, for many of the nearly eight million Muslims living in the United States, Ramadan is more than that.
In a post-9/11 society in which Islam itself has been scrutinized and vilified by some as the driving force behind global terrorism, this month offers Muslim Americans a chance to reaffirm the true purpose of their religion.
“I think that it’s definitely taken on a more increased, heightened meaning,” said Sarah al-Tantawi, the communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in California.
During the month of Ramadan, more time is devoted to prayer, less time to personal concerns and more restrictions are placed on the daily lives of Muslims.
That includes fasting every day from dawn to sunset at which point the fast is broken with a meal called Iftar.
“One thing that 9/11 did was bring Islam to the forefront of contemporary discussions, whereas before people didn’t talk about Islam very much”
At a recent community Iftar gathering held at an Islamic centre on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC, a few of the roughly 30 attendees spoke about the motivation for Muslim Americans since September 11, 2001 to read the Quran more and clarify the principles and precepts of Islam.
“I think now more Muslims are having to study Islam a little better, because some people said some things,” said Naiim Abd Allah, a Muslim since he was a teenager and a recent medical school graduate.
Today people often use words like “murder”, “jihad” and “terrorism” when talking about Islam. Consequently, Ramadan is the perfect time for Muslims to educate people on the faith, not only outside the Muslim American community, but within it as well, Abd Allah said.
“Ramadan is like a friend coming into the house that you want to honour and respect, and so you want to make sure the house is clean,” he said, adding that Islam is a religion of peace, not a vehicle for terrorism.
“And while some will be breaking their fast with the president, most Muslims across America, their hearts are breaking by the policies [of the Bush administration]”
The fallout from 9/11 has been a mixed bag for Muslim Americans, sparking more opportunities to educate the public on the reality of Islam, but also making the community a target of suspicion and discrimination, said Khalil Rashid, a Georgetown law student and lifelong Muslim.
“One thing that 9/11 did was bring Islam to the forefront of contemporary discussions, whereas before people didn’t talk about Islam very much,” Rashid said. “But I also think it’s led to a bit of a witchhunt.”
Although Islamic organisations such as the Council of American-Islamic Relations documented a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes since 9/11, al-Tantawi criticised the media for focusing more attention on violent acts committed by Muslims during Ramadan, rather than against them.
“One thing you see is in the media, you’ll see ties made between, ‘Oh, the start of Ramadan,’ and the increase in violent activity [in the Muslim world],” she said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Many Muslim American leaders blame the Bush administration for the difficulties faced by the Muslim community across the country.
Although President Bush received widespread praise for denouncing anti-Muslim bigotry after 9/11, several of the largest Muslim American associations excoriated him for enacting policies, both foreign and domestic, that they say negate the positive impact of his words.
US Muslims say Bush administration
So when Bush recently held a ceremonial gathering for a Ramadan Iftar at the White House, the event met with scorn and indignation from certain representatives of the Muslim American national leadership who felt the move was nothing more than a political “photo op”.
“Basically, we feel that this administration has not dealt with the Muslim community in the right way – it’s not right,” said Mahdi Bray, the executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, during a news conference at the National Press Club.
“And while some will be breaking their fast with the president, most Muslims across America, their hearts are breaking by the policies [of the Bush administration].”
Bray said he was angered over the fact that the White House had not consulted with the Muslim American national leadership and had not invited its most respected representatives to the dinner.
Among those in attendance were the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, several representatives of members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and Imam Faizul Khan, a member of the Islamic Society of North America, according to the White House website.
However, Bray insisted the event was devoid of substance and that the administration had not done enough to engage the Muslim community.
“We don’t believe that the only substantive dialogue with the Muslim community in America should be through the Department of Justice and through the FBI”
Others have argued that Muslim Americans have been the most adversely affected by administration policies regarding the war on terrorism, especially the Patriot Act, which gives federal law enforcement agencies more power to monitor the general public.
Many Muslim American leaders say they feel the new law is targeting their community.
“We don’t believe that the only substantive dialogue with the Muslim community in America should be through the Department of Justice and through the FBI,” said Khalid Turaani, the executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, an advocacy group in Washington.
Turaani and others also criticised Bush on his foreign policy with respect to Iraq and the Middle East peace process, and said he had not gone far enough in denouncing the comments of Army Lt General William Boykin, who likened the war on terrorism to a Christian crusade against Islam.
During a White House news conference on Tuesday, the president said Boykin “doesn’t reflect my view, or the view of this administration”.
Need for change
Al-Tantawi said she did not believe Bush was against Muslim Americans or their religious beliefs, but that many of his policies were directed by administration officials who “are anti-Muslim in the sense that they’re against having an independent Muslim American community that would challenge the premise of the neo-conservative policies”.
A few hours after their news conference, Bray, Turaani and about 15 others gathered in front of the White House at sundown to break their fast on their own, a protest against the dinner being held by the president just a hundred yards away.
As the day transformed into the evening twilight, the soft, golden glow of the White House lights helped illuminate the small act of defiance.
Imam Johari Abd al-Malik, who led the group in prayer, summed up the mood by saying that Bush had to do more than break bread with selected Muslim Americans if he wanted to placate their community.
“We’ll pass on the president’s coffee in order to call attention to what is right,” he said.