To Be Poor and Ignored During Ramadan

A member of a family that fled war in Syria and relocated to Michigan. Credit Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images
A member of a family that fled war in Syria and relocated to Michigan. Credit Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Dearborn, Mich., is the capital of Muslim America, and it is never more vibrant than during the holy month of Ramadan, which comes to an end this week. Authentic Yemeni cafes are packed with customers into the early-morning hours, colorful rows of desserts are displayed in Lebanese and Palestinian sweet shops, and the tables at private iftars — the traditional dinners where Muslims end their daily fast — overflow each evening with an abundance of food.

Here, as in many communities where Muslim Americans have climbed from the economic perils that can accompany immigrant status to the relative comforts of the ranks of the working class, the bounty of the evening and early morning provide a welcome juxtaposition to Ramadan’s daily fasts.

But not all Muslims can enjoy this kind of bounty during the holy month. Not far from Dearborn, in Detroit, for example, things are very different, during Ramadan and throughout the year. Today, the city’s West Side, where I grew up, is home to a tapestry of Muslim immigrants from Iraq, Yemen, Syria and West African nations. Many of them live on the margins of poverty.

In many ways, these people are invisible. They’re largely ignored by a media that often characterizes Muslims as industrious entrepreneurs and well-educated professionals, countering Islamophobia with “model minority” stereotypes that unintentionally obscure the experiences of struggling Muslims. Worse, they’re overlooked by wealthier Muslim neighbors who give generously to many charities, especially during Ramadan, but too often fail to see the economic struggles in their own backyards.

According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 35 percent of Muslim households report earning an annual household income less than $30,000, a figure just above the federal poverty line. This makes poverty far more common among Muslim Americans than it is among Catholic, Protestant or Jewish American households.

These figures come to life when I drive through Muslim-concentrated sections of Detroit (home to a diverse array of Yemeni, Iraqi, Bengali and black Muslim communities). They’re also apparent in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Bronx. All of these are places where for many residents, the Ramadan fast is followed more by scarcity than by excess.

“Meat is a luxury, even during Ramadan,” a Yemeni bodega worker told me during a recent visit to New York.

Of course, Muslim American hunger and poverty, like these issues in the broader population, have structural causes that require policy solutions well beyond individual giving. But until those are implemented — which seems especially unlikely in the current political climate — the need for Muslim American spiritual, charitable and advocacy organizations to prioritize local poverty is even more important.

Zakat, a pillar of Islam, mandates that Muslims give 2.5 percent of our wealth to those in need. Fueled by this, Muslim Americans donate consistently and generously to philanthropy. Ramadan is prime time for Muslim American fund-raising efforts, and it is common for Muslim nonprofit organizations and mosques to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to alleviate humanitarian crises in places like Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

Unfortunately, charity directed toward people like the Muslim residents of Detroit’s West Side is much less robust. “American Muslims have been incredibly supportive of charitable projects overseas, but they have not given adequate attention to the challenges that Muslims face at home,” Suhaib Webb, the resident scholar at the Islamic Center at New York University, told me. He said it could be the result of a lack of exposure to the needs closer to home. “A considerable number of Muslims reside in the suburbs, which tend to fence people in from experiencing poverty in America,” he said, “while at the same time, because of technology they are able to stay aware of things happening in their home countries.”

“I’m hopeful that education and exposure will inspire them to address poverty and commit some of their generosity during and beyond Ramadan to Muslims stateside,” Mr. Webb said.

For the Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago, a social services organization established in 2016 to aid Rohingya Muslim families who now confront both poverty and Islamophobia in the city, raising funds — even during Ramadan — has been a challenge. “We need more Muslim organizations and Muslim Americans to support our efforts as we rebuild our lives in our new home in the United States,” said Nasir Zakaria, the organization’s executive director.
his Ramadan, with its contrasting fasts and feasts, abundance and struggle, is almost over. But I hope it represents the beginning of a change. Muslims’ well-documented generosity and the Ramadan spirit of empathizing with the poor must be directed at indigent Muslim communities at home.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and the author of American Islamophobia.

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