How COVID-19 has changed Ramadan for Muslims

Published in Calgary Herald on April 24, 2020

By Mustafa Farooq. NCCM CEO

In high school, as we studied poetry, I remember reading from the great metaphysical philosopher John Donne. Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” I can’t help but think of this line as I think about what it means to celebrate and fast in Ramadan this year in the time of COVID-19.
A typical reading of Donne’s line is a sort of manifesto against isolationism. We are to read Donne’s poem as the notion that we are all interdependent — and I suppose that’s true.While Ramadan is a unique moment of introspection, Ramadan is also a profoundly social experience. We fast together. We break our fasts together. Mosques host large dinners at dusk where the less fortunate break their fasts. We congregate late in the night at the mosque, prostrating ourselves to God, and thinking about what it means to be a better person.

The challenge of COVID-19, of course, is a direct challenge to the way that Ramadan happens. This year, we won’t be congregating, we won’t be coming to the mosques, and we likely won’t be celebrating the end of Ramadan, Eid, in public.

But as someone who works at a non-profit that serves to fight against Islamophobia in Canada, I worry about Donne’s poem now in a different way.There’s a way in which the notion of which “no man is an island” can be read in a different way. It can be read to be understood that if one person does something wrong, we are all indirectly responsible.

For there is a sense of collective guilt, a worry that if there is a single Muslim who is thought to be contravening the quarantine measures, that the entire Muslim community will be blamed. In the same way that the Canadian Muslim community is often situated as the exceptional, as the group to which so much public thought centres around, from Stephen Harper’s niqab ban to Quebec’s Bill 21, I worry that the odd idiot (yes, the Muslim community has those too) who breaks quarantine will shed the entire community in a dark light.

This is not fearmongering or victimology.A recent piece in the Toronto Sun by Tarek Fatah expounded at how Muslims were engaging in “virus jihad.” In Calgary, a video went viral showing a neighbour screaming at her Muslim neighbours (who were sitting in their own property) with racist invective. In Thunder Bay, a Muslim physician was screamed at with racist language at a store when buying groceries.

It means that even as Canadian Muslims die from COVID-19, we worry about how the entire Muslim community could face castigation in the case that even a single Muslim breaches quarantine.

In other words, when folks broke quarantine during Easter, we all understood that the vast majority of Canadian Christians stood against that. We are not sure that the Canadian Muslim community would be afforded the same benefit of the doubt.

Nor does COVID-19 affect our communities in the same way that it affects the national average. Racialized communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19; in the U.S., in Chicago, 72 per cent of people that died from COVID-19 were black. In Alberta, 60 per cent of Indigenous households faced food insecurity even prior to COVID-19. On March 31, the Government of Ontario passed a new emergency order in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that sets out what many consider to be a return to carding.While we understand the policy rationale behind the order, we cannot forget how carding was historically been implemented — with a dramatic focus on racialized black folks (including black Muslims), Indigenous folks, and Middle Eastern people.

This means that this Ramadan, I’m probably not going to be thinking as much about the smell of cardamom or the crispy pakoras that we serve at the mosque during our get-togethers. Instead, I’m going to be thinking of my neighbours — of folks with mental health issues, of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, of my Indigenous brothers and sisters, and to make sure that we use this time of Ramadan Kareem — of a generous Ramadan — to be generous and gentle with each other.