Building Hindu-Muslim Unity During Ramadan

by Sunita Viswanath

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I have been privileged to work for the last 17 years for Women for Afghan Women (WAW). When Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus was being birthed in 2011, I remember expressing my admiration for the staff of WAW -- some more observant and devout, some more secular, but all of whom considered their work for human rights a part of their religious obligation as Muslims.

Yesterday was the beginning of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims. Sadhana has worked tirelessly these seven years to advocate against all forms of bigotry and violence in the name of religion, and against any religion. In particular, we have spoken out forcefully against Islamophobia. For me personally, it was seeing a Hindu saffron-clad man share a prayer at an anti-Muslim rally that made me take a pledge that I would never remain silent and allow my Hindu faith be a platform for bigotry and hate.

This Ramadan, my WAW colleagues are heartsick because of the endless terrorist attacks by Taliban and ISIS across Afghanistan. WAW's 800 staff members operate lifesaving shelters and programs in 14 provinces. Our staff and the families we serve are all embarking on a month of deep prayer for peace and justice in the world. 

This past Monday saw the launch of the New Poor People's Campaign's 40 Days of Direct Action. This work is the continuation of the legacy of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.  If Dr. King had not been killed, the Poor People's Campaign would have been the next priority of his life. This week, I was able to represent Sadhana at a rally outside the State Capitol in Albany. Speaker after speaker spoke about the 140 million Americans living in poverty in the United States today, and how that number has grown by 60 percent since Dr. King's death. Sadhana will work alongside faith leaders in this movement to make sure that Dr. King's legacy will not be extinguished along with his life. 

On the drive home from Albany, I heard news of violence in the Middle East. At the beginning of the holiest time of the year for Muslims, the United States was moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly controversial decision which is certain to make the possibility of peace more difficult. As the Embassy was opened, 40 miles away thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in peaceful protest, and over 60 protesters were gunned down by Israeli police. These killings were barely mentioned during the ceremonies to open the new Embassy, and Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister said “there are no innocent people in Gaza,” using this as a pretext to shoot, not only unarmed protesters, but also journalists.

And just a month ago, Sadhana organized a rally in response to the rapes of three little girls in India, one of whom was eight-year-old Asifa. Asifa was a girl from a nomadic Muslim tribe in Kashmir. A group of Hindu men targeted her because of the community she was from, held her captive for ten days within a Hindu temple, repeatedly gang-raped her there, and ultimately strangled her. The Hindu Ekta Manch (Hindu Unity Platform) that formed after this rape and murder was a march of thousands of Hindus defending not Asifa, but the Hindu rapists. As a Hindu woman, I hang my head in shame and horror.

It is difficult to understand how our Muslim brethren can find peace in their hearts as they pray and meditate during this holy month, knowing the extent of violent atrocities and injustices taking place against Muslims by both bigots who hate Muslims and Muslim extremists who hate progressive values.

And yet, the Muslims I am lucky to know and work with are fasting and praying. My sister Najia, country director of WAW and one of the most courageous woman I know, tells me, "Ramadan is a blessing in my life."

Naheed, who empowers the Afghan community in New York, and took 55 Afghan women to D.C. for the Women's March after the presidential election, told me, "Ramadan is a time to reflect to yourself and acknowledge your blessings and think of those in need. It is a time that I feel closer to the almighty."

And longtime WAW board member Masuda said, "Ramadan is a time of restraint from food and water in order to learn self control and focus on spiritual reflection. It is useful in understanding the challenges of those in need, particularly the hungry and a reminder to help them."

Sadhana will keep these women in our hearts and add our prayers to theirs. We will observe Ramadan by devoting ourselves to the Poor People's Campaign. 

This Sunday, to commemorate the occasion of Ramadan, Sadhana's Chicago chapter will explore the verses of Kabir, the iconoclastic bhakti poet of 15th-century north India who blurred the lines between "Hindu" and "Muslim", and spoke out against hypocrisy and injustice. And on June 12th, our Sadhana Satsangh in New York City will be devoted to Hindu-Muslim unity. Some of us will fast in solidarity and have Iftar at the same time as our Muslim friends; some of us will cover our heads; we will learn about the shared history of Hindus and Muslims and invite Muslim friends who are not attending mosque that night; we will chant Sufi songs and prayers; and we will conduct our prayers around a flame and to the God within our heart. All are welcome to our Satsangh.

With love and a deep desire for peace and unity, Sadhana wishes Ramadan Mubarak to our Muslim brothers and sisters. We Are One.

This piece also appeared on Auburn Seminary's blog, Voices.