This week, Muslim students returned to my English as a Second Language classes after a month off for Ramadan.
As I do every year, I asked them to share with the class the origin of Ramadan as well as the Islamic requirement that Muslims fast during the one-month period.
Since one of my goals as an instructor is to encourage English-language conversation, I look for topics that generate enough interest to get my students to speak out.
And among the Muslims that subject is religion.
Of course, the students unquestioningly endorse fasting as one of the Five Pillars of Islam mandated by the Qur'an and as an essential step to gaining Paradise.
But, as a non-believer, I am skeptical of symbolic religious ceremonies of all faiths. And regarding Ramadan, I question the whole concept and purpose of fasting.
How can I put it delicately? Muslim "fasting" doesn't impress me any more than my (former) fellow-Catholics who ate fish sticks on Fridays.
In the first place, as I point out to my students, the Muslim definition of fasting is certainly not what most Americans would define as a true fast.
During daylight hours, Muslims cannot eat, drink smoke or have sex. And while this is no doubt inconvenient, when the sun goes down, Muslims can eat all they want.
In fact, the typical pattern is to eat at sunset, continue eating throughout the night, and wake up before sunrise to eat again.
Fast by day; gorge by night. I don't think we have a single word for that in English. But I do know that the word isn't "fast."
What I find most objectionable during Ramadan is that Muslims use fasting as a hammer to show that they are holier—if that is the right word—than the rest of us.
At play is this sort of attitude:
"I'm fasting, you're not. Ergo, I'm better than you."
So much is made by Muslim leadership, most notably Council of American Islamic Relations, about how fasting represents a period of introspection, spiritual peace and a time for more generous donations to the poor that it all makes me very nervous.
If fasting is what you want to do, be my guest. But spare me the lectures.
The reality is that all the fuss about the ancient 6th Century custom of fasting may be bad public relations.
As the free world frets about Islamic "fundamentalism," maybe Muslims shouldn't be so outspoken in their dedication to the practices of 1500 years ago.
What strikes me as more in tune with the 21st Century, and represents the kind of thinking I would like to see more of, is this opinion I found on a blog site:
father comes from the Muslim faith and is currently
fasting for Ramadan (he thinks I'm fasting- but I'm
not). I've come to the conclusion that fasting is
absolutely useless in this day and age. Maybe 1,400
years ago when there weren't many direct ways in helping
the starving they felt that fasting was a good way to
purify one's soul and feel what its like. Yet nowadays
to see people fasting… I don't know; I don't see the
You know why? Because we KNOW we're going to be eating at sunset- we KNOW we will have dinner prepared and made out and we will pig out after that. How does this 'help' the poor or even 'purify' ones soul? I've made a deal with God- that is I will NOT fast but to compensate I will give to charity instead. This is the NEW AGE way for any Muslim to directly help the poor. I see the idea of fasting as a pretty nice one the whole purifying of ones soul, no food or water or dirty thoughts- it's nice. But is it pointless?"
The other major problem with the supposed peace inducing benefits of fasting is that it doesn't jibe with what is going on in the real world.
The Paris rioters, the Iraqi car bombers, the anti-American imams deported from Lodi earlier this summer—all dedicated, I'm sure, to fasting and daily prayer.
So whenever I listen to my students, I have mixed emotions.
No doubt they are sincere and devoutly religious. But, even if they attain citizenship, will they ever really be Americans?
I recalled a 2001 post-9/11 meeting I had with Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John Fonte.
During our visit, Fonte referred me to a study titled, Competing Visions of Islam in the United States based on research done in Los Angeles. The author, an Iranian doctoral candidate at Harvard University, found that 12 of 15 Muslim immigrants have a primary allegiance to a country other than the United States.
Frankly, judging by my collective classroom experiences over nearly two decades, I'm surprised that even three of the subjects identified more strongly with America than their native country.
According to Fonte, what has to replace growing separatism is the United States is what he calls "patriotic assimilation."
What's important, stresses Fonte, is that immigrants must share the principles of freedom, justice and loyalty and understand the serious moral commitment they make when they come to the America.
This might seem like a lot to ask from our broken immigration system at this stage of the game.
But it isn't…or at least it shouldn't be.
In fact, looking at (and hopefully learning from) what is happening in France, the federal government needs to realize that stakes are higher than ever.
We can't continue to compound our immigration mistakes…that is, unless we're willing to accept the possibility of our own version of the Paris riots set, say, in Los Angeles, between disaffected Mexicans and displaced Americans.
The government needs to demonstrate that it is serious about integrating immigrants into the national fabric. No more embracing diversity or bowing at the altar of multiculturalism.
If we insist on patriotic assimilation from all our immigrants starting today, perhaps we can restore the hallowed concept of "the American way of life."
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.