Ending a six-year hiatus, Gov. Phil Murphy is reviving a state tradition by hosting an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast at the governor’s mansion on Tuesday evening.
For Muslim communities across the state, the move is a sign of warming relations with the state’s chief executive at a time when they badly need an ally — a time when reports of bias incidents are on the rise and when Muslims are feeling shunned by the White House. For many, the iftar at Drumthwacket, the governor’s residence in Princeton, is more than a meal.
“The tradition of breaking bread with people — it’s symbolic in all cultures,” said Nadia Kahf, an attorney and activist who lives in Wayne and who plans to attend the celebration. “In the month of Ramadan, it symbolizes reaching out. It’s just a wonderful feeling for the community to look around the table and to have dinner with people who are allies at these times.”
Muslim leaders say Murphy, who pledged to be inclusive while in office, has consulted them, visited their mosques and institutions, and hired Muslim-Americans for his administration. They cheered when he appointed Dr. Shereef Elnahal as health commissioner and the first Muslim to serve the state in a cabinet position.
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“New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation and we’re committed to celebrating all communities that call New Jersey home,” Murphy and his wife, Tammy Snyder Murphy, said in a statement. “We’re honored to host an Iftar at the Governor’s Mansion during Ramadan and look forward to bringing together Muslim and various faith and community leaders from all across our state for the celebration.”
Murphy’s relationship with the state’s Muslims isn’t unlike the early years under his predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, who was widely seen at the time as a friend to Muslim-Americans. Christie held iftars at his official residence, defended Muslims against prejudice, appointed a Muslim lawyer as a judge and spoke out against the New York Police Department’s surveillance of mosques and Muslim student groups in New Jersey.
But Muslim leaders say the relationship became more distant, even sour, as Christie aspired to national office at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric was growing among Republicans, reaching a fever-pitch during the presidential primary two years ago. In New Jersey, the last formal iftar at the governor’s mansion was in 2012.
Setting a cultural tone
Muslim leaders say the annual governor’s iftar, an invitation-only event, goes back at least as far as the administration of Gov. Christine Whitman.
Imam W. Deen Shareef, convener of the Council of Imams in New Jersey, sat with Whitman in 2000 to break the fast. He recalled that one of the nation’s most influential Islamic leaders, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, spoke at the iftar about building up Muslims’ faith in America and building bridges with state and local governments. To Shareef, it felt like a “landmark” event.
“The message that we left with was inclusiveness in regards to the Muslim community,” Shareef said. “We felt we were an asset to the state, to the counties and to the cities in New Jersey.”
Shareef also attended an iftar at the White House when Barack Obama was president. A Quran owned by Thomas Jefferson — the first president to have a White House iftar dinner in 1805 — was on display.
The White House iftar was held every year under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, but ended when President Donald Trump took office last year.
For Muslims, the end of that tradition underscored the shift in tone under the Trump administration. Trump has stated “Islam hates us,” has called for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslim immigration to the United States, and repeated widely-discredited claims that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11.
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He’s fighting to impose bans on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries and has ordered “extreme vetting” that has severely slowed the resettlement of refugees from countries like Syria and Sudan.
Muslims and their supporters believe his words have emboldened people to act on their prejudices. Last year, reports of anti-Muslim bias incidents rose 17 percent across the country, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In some incidents, perpetrators shouted the name “Trump” or sprayed it on mosque walls.
The message matters, said Shareef. “I think every governor sets a certain cultural tone. This is what leaders do,” he said.
That’s why he welcomed news that the iftar, the evening meal to break the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, was returning to the governor’s mansion. Shareef said he hoped it would be an example of inclusiveness for other people in power and counter some of the “toxicity that people are being fed.”
“It lets people know it’d be far more desirable to find ways to come together, eat together, talk together and work together,” he said.
‘A stamp on our community’
Ramadan, which began May 15, marks the month when Muslims believe Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and focus on prayer, reflection and charity.
For Muslims, the evening meal is often a festive occasion, shared with family and friends over lots of food, and traditionally started by consuming dates and water. Ramadan ends with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr that includes celebrations, feasts and the exchange of gifts.
New Jersey’s roughly 250,000 Muslims account for 3 percent of the state’s population — a diverse group that includes many African-Americans, South Asians and Arabs. Despite a national climate that some perceive as unfriendly to Muslims, their influence in the state is growing. Many Muslim-Americans now serve in elected office as mayors, freeholders and school board members.
Around 100 people are expected to attend the governor’s iftar, to be catered by a Turkish restaurant, including religious and community leaders, activists and elected officials, according to the governor’s office.
Aref Assaf, a Denville resident and president of the Paterson-based American Arab Forum, said the invitation to dine with the governor shouldn’t be a big deal, given that governors routinely reach out and celebrate holidays with members of different communities. He was doing what was right, he said.
“It’s putting a stamp on our community’s standing in society and our contributions and our need to be acknowledged,” Assaf said, adding that the “governor does this all the time with other groups.”
Still, the bigger picture could not be ignored. The invitation has inspired a feeling of acceptance at time when Muslim have felt marginalized.
“We believe we’ve been besieged and our voices have been muffled,” Assaf said, “so whenever an opportunity arises and our religious and cultural celebrations are acknowledged, that is a milestone.”