Pandemic Ramadan, poverty and the politics of blame

Pandemic Ramadan, poverty and the politics of blame
Comment: Images of armed, angry, white men openly violating stay-at-home orders, in contrast with those of shuttered mosques, tell a story of racial privilege in America, writes Khaled Beydoun.
6 min read
05 May, 2020
'The crisis is sinking more Muslims into poverty' writes Beydoun [AFP]
The doors of the Islamic Center of America, the ornate mosque in the heart of blue-collar Michigan, were locked shut. It was a surreal picture, on the seventh day of Ramadan – the Islamic holy month when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown. The mosque, and the growing constellation of mosques in the metropolitan area are usually bustling with energy and people. 

This Ramadan, however, is dramatically different from ones past. It has converged with the Covid-19 pandemic, and emergency stay-at-home orders that have shuttered mosque doors and confined Ramadan reverence to within people's homes. 

Meanwhile – 90 miles to the northwest of the Islamic Centre of America, in Lansing, Michigan, armed white men stormed the state capitol demanding the state to "re-open". Crowded inside the lobby of the assembly floor, many of the men held rifles and shouted at members of state congress.

The violent demonstration unfolded two weeks after President Donald Trump
tweeted to "liberate" a state that emerged into an epicentre of the global pandemic, and disproportionately claimed the lives of Black and poor people that contracted the virus. 

The images of armed and angry white men openly violating stay-at-home orders, in contrast with those of shuttered mosques and repressed Ramadan revelry, are the newest chapters of America's skewed story of racial privilege and religious scapegoating.

Poor and working class Muslims did not storm the state capitol demanding 'freedom,' 'reopen America,' or 'let us work'

The financial pressures placed by the pandemic on America's poor and working class communities, characterised by food shortages and proliferating unemployment were coming to a head in Lansing, Detroit, and cities beyond and between, where the holy month converged with the unholiest of global crises. 

However, poor and working class Muslims - which comprise 35 percent of the faith group in the US and are overrepresented in Michigan - did not storm the state capitol demanding "freedom," "reopen America," or "let us work." 

Instead, they stayed home, quarantined with their Qurans and kin, fighting to endure the financial noose that tightens as each day of Ramadan and the converging pandemic rolls by. This was the new abnormal.

"I haven't worked for about a month now," shared Mohammed, 43, a Detroit resident who drives a taxi and takes on subcontracting work to make ends meet. "This Ramadan is depressing. I can't buy the food my [three] children want or [their] holiday clothes. Every dollar has to go to bills, and it's not enough." 

Struggles like Mohammed's were common before the pandemic, but are now becoming even more widespread, due to a crisis that is sinking more Muslims into poverty.  

Before this, poor Muslims were mostly invisible. "They're largely ignored by a media that often characterises Muslims as industrious entrepreneurs and well-educated professionals, countering Islamophobia with "model minority" stereotypes that unintentionally obscure the experiences of struggling Muslims." 

While poverty and its associated perils are creeping into everyday life for scores of Muslim families this Ramadan, this pandemic couples invisibility with the bleak reality of negotiating backbreaking financial pressure and the lurking shadow of political blame. 

Yet, Mohammed, like so many other Muslims in the area and the country at large, never thought about breaking the stay-at-home order to try and make ends meet. While suffocating financially, he was aware of the political cost of picking work back up to feed his family, or protesting the Executive Order like the armed white men in the state capitol. 

Namely, that doing so would not only lead to individual criticism but condemnation of an entire faith group that is accustomed to collective blame, during their holiest season no less. As law professor Caroline Mala Corbin observed, "terrorists are always Muslim but never white," a double-standard that riddles America's pandemic-stricken reality. 

This pandemic couples invisibility with the bleak reality of negotiating backbreaking financial pressure

Days before Ramadan began, Trump insinuated that Muslims could make a "difference" in spreading the virus by attending mosques and gathering in large groups, tacking on to his extensive record of scapegoating the faith group. He picked his words carefully but his Ramadan message was clear: Muslims would be held liable for the spread of the virus if they violated social distancing measures. 

In India, more ominously, Muslims are being blamed by mainstream media outlets and elected officials for the country's Covid-19 outbreak. The virus is widely dubbed "Corona Jihad" and "Corona terrorism," manifesting the heavy price Muslims pay for falling off the impossible tightrope of social obedience and religious observance.

A tightrope that, during a Ramadan plagued by a virus that has killed more than 60,000 Americans, is mutating into a noose for Muslims living between the insufferable margins of poverty and pandemic.

Read more: Of course Muslims are staying home this Ramadan, so spare us the extra scrutiny

A liminal space that goes ignored and unseen, until the state seeks to levy its heavy hand of blame. A hand that has kept mosque doors locked tight, and this Ramadan locked down. 

"I rely on the local masjid (mosque) for iftar meals," shared Kamal, an unemployed senior who lives alone in Melvindale, Michigan. "It's also where I meet my friends for prayer and conversation. They are my family here. Now, I am always alone." 

Kamal has had to rely on the generosity of his friends to provide him with nightly iftar meals. His only physical interaction with other people comes minutes before he breaks his fast, when a child of one of his friend's hands him a bag of food at his doorstep.

Contracting the for virus, for a 66-year old former smoker, could spell a lonely death in hospital. So, he's heeded every safety measure to stave off the virus and the reaper. But the trade-offs are costly. Loneliness, especially during Ramadan, invites depression and other ills for the elderly man whose entire life revolves around the mosque. 

"Allah will provide," he quietly closed. He, and scores of struggling Muslims who previously worked paycheck-to-paycheck and shift-to-shift to make ends meet, offer no protest to the dark shadow the pandemic has cast above him this Ramadan. 

The trade-offs are costly. Loneliness, especially during Ramadan, invites depression and other ills

Now, in the heart of Ramadan, the only challenge to be met is making it day-to-day. With a stomach doubly emptied by the mandatory fast, and a pandemic that stripped Muslims of work, wages, and a temporary escape from the crucible of poverty. 

This pandemic has impoverished the collective joy of Ramadan for indigent and working Muslims, who are counting down the days until they can return to work. Like poor and working people of all faiths, they too, are suffering. But being part of a long-maligned religion, during the season when the political spotlight shines brightest on Muslims, makes organised protest inconceivable. 

The images of armed and scowling white men, storming state capitols and provoking policemen, are unfolding in real time - right now.

Meanwhile, presidents and elected officials, reluctant to place any blame on these white violators for the spread of the virus, anxiously wait for poor and working Muslims to make the slightest misstep, so that they can scapegoat an already reeling community. 

These pandemic Ramadan days are long. Particularly for poor and out-of-work Muslims waiting to break free from the tangled financial and political noose fastened around their neck.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. He sits on the United States Commission for Civil Rights, and is based out of Detroit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.