With 9/11 in Mind, American Muslims Celebrate Eid al-Fitr

New Haven, Connecticut and New York – As the early morning sun steamed through glass skylights, hundreds of Muslim men, women, and children gathered at a cavernous indoor track in New Haven, Connecticut, to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

In some parts of the country, religious leaders had announced plans to scale back holiday celebrations for fear of inflaming public sentiment on the eve of September 11. But here, a joyous crowd gathered to mark the end of fasting.

The prayer service signaled the beginning of Eid al-Fatir, one of the most important dates on the Islamic calendar. This year, Eid, which follows the lunar calendar, began on September 10. Though many American Muslims celebrate the holiday for only one day, the holiday lasts for three, awkwardly straddling the September 11 anniversary in a year of heightened political rancor.

After special Eid prayers in the morning, many Muslims spend the rest of the day with family and friends, with a special focus on eating delicious food after a month of fasting from dawn to dusk. As this year’s Eid fell on a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, many returned to a mosque in the early afternoon for services before resuming the celebration.

The mood at the service was buoyant, if contemplative. Laughing young girls swathed in a riot of red and blue and yellow outfits sprinted along the track’s racing oval while boys trailed their hands through the long jump sand. Men and women, separated by hurdles, bowed and chanted in unison, and listened to a sermon stressing the need for peace and self-reflection.

Outside the service, Rashad Abdul-Hakim says the swirling animosities confronting Muslims in recent weeks did little to dampen his Eid enthusiasm.

“This is a blessed day,” Mr. Abdul-Hakim says.

A convert to Islam since 1991, Abdul-Hakim, who is black, says he planned to proceed with low-key celebrations because the recent cultural flare-ups would soon pass. “I remember when my mom came home after there was some civil unrest, and she had been beaten up…divisions like that just aren’t accepted anymore.”

Jimmy Jones, president of the board of nearby Masjid Al-Islam, a worship and community center, helped organize a large breakfast after the service, complete with a moon bounce for the kids.

“Should we celebrate Eid? Should we tone it down? I get that at an emotional level but not as an American … I know the emotionality of losing a loved one, but it’s a very irrational reaction to blame all Muslims [for 9/11],” says Mr. Jones. “9/11 was a psychic shock to the average American, it was a kind of carnage we haven’t seen … I was as horrified as the next American.”

Still, the daily mix of reports about the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, equivocating in his decision to suspend his plans to burn copies of the Quran, made it hard for many people interviewed to feel fully comfortable on Eid.

In New York City, far from the scrum of reporters camped outside the controversial Park51 Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero, Abdul Sangeer was trying to manage his restaurant, Tabaq Grill, as two hundred celebrating Pakistanis tucked into a buffet upstairs.

The balance of religious obligation and cultural sensitivity is a difficult one for him, Mr. Sangeer says.

“I am one hundred percent sure that nothing will happen, but it doesn’t look good to celebrate when my neighbor is mourning,” Sangeer says, adding that he was relieved that the beginning of Eid did not fall on the eleventh.

This year has been a tough one financially, and some joy was necessary. “We celebrate for the sake of celebrating,” he said. “We are concerned about our company’s neighbors, about our business and our neighbor’s business too. The Israeli shop next door, their business is suffering too.”

Though he says he doesn’t make a point of entering the political fray, Sangeer says he was moved to write the Florida pastor an email, urging him to read the Koran once, cover to cover, before exercising his free speech rights to set it aflame. “I said brother, God bless you whatever you do, just read it first … if you burn it, you burn the names of all the prophets, including Jesus.”

Still, he says, life will have to go on as usual, even on September 11. He says his dining room is booked again tonight, but the party will be much smaller.