Ramadan – the Muslim holy month known for fasting, as well as togetherness and solidarity – starts later this week. But it will certainly not be “Ramadan as usual”, with lockdowns and closed Mosques affecting the Muslim community in the UK as well as Muslim-majority countries around the world.
The lack of the usual collective activities enjoyed during the holy month, like prayers, meals and social activities, puts into stark focus how both our public social lives and private spiritual lives have been uprooted by the pandemic.
Ramadan is normally a time of unity. Across social strata, Muslims gather as one. Beyond any one sect or faith, it is also a time for intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue and bridge building. The Ramadan Tent Project in London mirrors the roadside “iftar” (“fast-breaking”) meals which take place in the Muslim world, where all are welcome.
This is sorely needed now, since coronavirus has created or worsened existing divisions around the world. There are explanations by evolutionary psychologists for why the “behavioural immune system” leads to less tolerance for outsiders, and harsher attitudes to those of immigrant background.
This is not just theory: coronavirus has already led to increased attacks on those of Chinese or East Asian appearance in the United States. As a sign of how instinctive and irrational these reactions are, anti-black racism has also increased in China, despite China being the source of the virus and many sub-Saharan African countries seeing relatively low levels of the disease.
The need for someone – preferably who looks or lives differently to us – to blame knows no boundaries. Indian hospitals have refused to admit Muslims after they were blamed for spreading coronavirus in the country.
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Closer to home, far-right figures have taken a leaf out of their Indian ideological cousins’ playbook and sought to link Muslims with the contagion. Xenophobia is always tragic, but it is especially painful now that Muslims are being kicked while they are down. Muslim-majority countries have been among the earliest and worst affected by the pandemic, notably in Iran and Egypt.
The human and economic cost to the Muslim world is likely to be worsened as remittances, on which many of those nations are dependant for a huge slice of their GDP, reduce or disappear. The minority communities in Europe and North America who are often the source of these remittances are disproportionately affected by the virus. As many struggle to survive, supporting extended families will become a luxury fewer of them can afford.
This also affects children: my organisation, Charity Right, works with partner schools to feed 18,000 children a day. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, 320 million children worldwide are now missing out on school meals, which is often their only meal of the day.
These challenges are combined with a very real spiritual loss felt by Muslims around the world. One of the most tragic casualties of the pandemic is our sense of togetherness. But just as this togetherness has shifted online with Instagram Live concerts replacing gigs in physical venues, the traditional Ramadan is evolving into a “Remote Ramadan”.
As well as Zoom calls facilitating congregational prayers and spiritual gatherings, the informal welfare state of Ramadan is also being virtualised. Many Muslims rely on Ramadan to ensure they receive free meals in places like Mosques.“Iftar” meals, where Muslims normally congregate to break their fast together, are now being home delivered rather than being cancelled completely. This is true in the UK as well as across the Muslim world.
In the end, humans are social animals and isolation does not come naturally to us. It will take more than a virus to stop us from communicating and collaborating albeit virtually – whether that is for a Ramadan gathering or a Parliamentary debate.
Sajad Mahmood is CEO of Charity Right