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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services — Unrestricted – September 22, 2008
Sep. 20–RICHARDSON — In a banquet room above the student union’s bopping pingpong balls and blaring arcade games, the groan of empty stomachs met the hum of Arabic prayer.
Tables of 20-somethings at the University of Texas at Dallas drooled over plates of hummus as their Muslim counterparts concluded their pre-dinner supplications for Ramadan. Then everyone ate for the first time since dawn. “Why do they put that in front of us to stare at?” whined 19-year-old Sara Arnold before she got permission to rip a hunk of pita bread and dunk it into the chickpea dip.
The Muslim Students Association’s fast-a-thon — a riff on religious doctrine — draws hundreds of non-Muslim students who choose to fast for one day with their Muslim peers and attend the daily iftar banquet in the evening to break it.
They now share in the age-old custom of spiritual and physical cleansing tied to the holiday, which runs through September this year.
Participation numbers have more than doubled in the last several years, a factor religious scholars and students attribute to an outreach by the Muslim community, solidarity on the part of those who have become fascinated by the Islamic faith, and a curiosity about the spiritual act of fasting itself.
“A lot of people know what Ramadan is now,” said Ayaham Nahhas, the president of the Muslim Students Association at UTD, who says the fast-a-thon — which drew about 120 people — is the biggest activity his organization holds. “Islam has been getting more attention in the media, and people just want to know what we are all about.”
More than 240 Muslim Students Associations host fast-a-thons — groups at Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University are among them — and have raised more than $50,000 for charity. Local businesses donate at least a dollar for each non-Muslim who participates.
The fast-a-thon notion started in North Texas several years ago, although it took root at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville just after 9/11. The event was intended to create a dialogue about Islam while participants engage in the charitable acts advocated during Ramadan as part of the holiday’s spiritual and physical cleansing.
All area groups are reporting increased attendance and are donating money to an orphan drive organized by the nonprofit Islamic Relief.
No one’s quite sure why attendance has increased so dramatically recently, seven years after 9/11.
“Maybe it’s a political empathy post-9/11, a wanting to stand alongside and experience something like this for the first time,” said Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
She said she’s noticed more non-Muslims across the country fasting in solidarity with their Muslim friends this year than ever before. “Whatever it is, it’s all the rage.”
Part of the heightened awareness comes from Muslim outreach efforts, especially fast-breaking celebrations hosted by area mosques that incorporate lessons about Ramadan.
But these interfaith actions are most obvious among college students, said Mustafaa Carroll, the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“The fear is still there, but people are looking for answers, especially the youth,” he said. “There is a genuine interest to understand, and they don’t see the world the same way as the older generation. They’re not as uptight.”
UTD senior Molly Wurzer’s global experiences brought her to Monday’s fast-a-thon. The Houston native spent the summer in the predominantly Muslim country of Tunisia.
“I fasted to have more cultural understanding with my Muslim friends here and back in Tunisia,” said the 21-year-old political science major.
But others believe that fast-a-thon attendance stems more from a curiosity about fasting than inquisitiveness about Islam or a strengthened sense of brotherhood.
“What is fascinating to many Christians about Islam is that fasting is not associated with repentance,” said Robert Hunt, the director of global theological education at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. “It’s an act of pure obedience and it’s a factor of doing it to be better in touch with fellow human beings.”
For a majority of students at Monday’s fast-a-thon, it was about charity and empathy, unattached to any religious denomination.
“I did this to feed orphans,” said Ms. Arnold, a sophomore from Austin. “I also thought it would be really interesting to get through a day without eating and do it for a good purpose,” she added, biting into a date and sighing.
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Copyright (C) 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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