For this year’s Ramadan, Rida Hamida is bringing taco trucks to every mosque in her community.
The holy month, which starts today and is observed by 1.5 billion Muslims, involves two key things — community-wide fasting during the daylight hours and the breaking of that fast, just after sunset, with a huge meal known as iftar.
Tacos are not standard iftar fare.
And that’s the point.
For Hamida, and thousands of other Muslims in Southern California, the iftar table is becoming a place to forge bonds with non-Muslim neighbors. That’s been true since the Sept. 11 attacks, but this year — the first Ramadan since the election of President Donald Trump — the trend is accelerating. And if the tacos-for-iftar effort happens to bring together two groups who currently feel targeted — Muslims and Latinos — so much the better, say Hamida and others.
Mosques and Muslim community organizations generally are emphasizing cultural and religious outreach as a way to showcase their faith, culture and food. The hope is that familiarity will lead to friendship and friendship, in turn, will stem a recent flood of anti-Muslim hate crimes and other incidents.
They are also hoping for a much more peaceful Ramadan, worldwide. A year ago, the holy month was marred by mass carnage, as attacks perpetrated by ISIS hit Turkey, Bangladesh, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and culminated with triple suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. One of those attacks seemed particularly hurtful for devout Muslims, taking place outside the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.
Rida Hamida and Benjamin Vazquez, a Santa Ana educator and community activist, are working to bring taco trucks to mosques throughout Orange County for Ramadan. “With this event, we are introducing a new segment of the Muslim population to the Latino community,” said Hamida, who along with Vazquez has conducted storytelling events at schools throughout the region.
This year, Muslims in Southern California are hoping for a Ramadan defined by peace, understanding and community engagement — and, in some quarters, tasty food involving tortillas.
“Community engagement with a side of tacos,” said Hamida, who lives in Anaheim.
Hamida and Benjamin Vazquez, a Santa Ana educator and community activist, in partnership with Resilience OC, are bringing taco trucks to mosques throughout Orange County, the trucks rolling up just as iftar kicks in.
It might turn out to be more multi-cultural than one would expect. The first of the #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque event will kick off June 3 at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana, a center where most members are Chinese. It’s the kind of cultural swirl that could happen in East Los Angeles or Gardena or any number of other communities in the San Gabriel Valley.
“We are introducing a new segment of the Muslim population to the Latino community,” said Hamida, who has conducted storytelling events with Vazquez at schools throughout the region.
Hamida said she is asking those attending, even non-Muslims, to fast for at least for part of the day and then break the fast with tacos. “It helps us feel empathy for one another,” she said. “That’s what Ramadan is all about.”
It’s also tongue-in-cheek response to a semi-famous statement made by Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, who last year insisted that mainstream American culture soon would be swamped by Latino culture, by way of taco.
“You’re going to have taco trucks on every corner,” Gutierrez said.
Hamida, who sees that as a feature, not a bug, hopes her effort will lead to something that lasts long after Ramadan ends.
“This is not a one-and-done event,” she said. “It’s a movement. It’s a partnership between two communities that are targets of hate and rhetoric.
Instead of fearing Latino culture becoming dominant,” she added, “we’re embracing it.”
Hamida’s good cheer masks some dark forces.
In the past year, anti-Muslim hate has reached an all-time high in the United States, surpassing even the wave of anti-Muslim crime that took place immediately after Sept. 11. Threatening letters have been sent to mosques. Hijabs have been ripped off women’s heads. Some mosques have been burned. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) documented a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2016 compared with 2015.
In Los Angeles, members of another faith that’s been increasingly targeted by threats and vandalism will break bread at the iftar table. On June 7, at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, one of the city’s oldest synagogues, Jews and Muslims will celebrate an interfaith iftar with halal and kosher food.
The event will be about more than breaking bread.
“We talk to one another, share with one another,” said Maryam Saleemi, spokeswoman for NewGround, a community organization that brings together Jews and Muslims in Southern California.
“We ask questions. Who are you as a person? What are your beliefs? What are the moments that connect us? When was the last time you felt courageous? When was the last time you stood up for someone else?
“It can be very powerful,” she added.
Saleemi, who grew up in Corona, said her parents routinely invited their Christian neighbors for iftar dinners.
“It’s a tradition in Islam to open your home and invite your neighbors, even if you don’t see eye to eye with them,” she said. “It’s one of the ways we can heal together and feel empowered together.”
This year, CAIR launched its #FastForwardIftar encouraging Los Angeles-region mosques to host interfaith fast-breaking meals as a way of countering Islamophobia and building better relationships.
California mosques have been way ahead of the curve, hosting interfaith iftars for more than a decade, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA, an Anaheim-based organization that includes Muslims from throughout Southern California.
“We’re hoping to take it a step further by urging people to invite neighbors into their homes so it’s a more intimate setting and not as formal,” he said. “That would truly give people the opportunity to connect and get to know one another.”
Ayloush said while it’s true that anti-Muslim incidents have skyrocketed in Southern California, so has outreach from non-Muslims. Churches, synagogues and non-religious neighbors have reached out to the local Muslim community, offering support that often doesn’t make headlines.
“Ramadan is the season to develop spirituality and empathy toward those who are less fortunate,” he said. “But it’s also a month of activism, a time to build bridges and strengthen those bridges.”
While mosques do open their doors this time of year, they also have the responsibility to be vigilant, said Ahsan Baseer, board president of the Islamic Society of Corona-Norco, whose annual iftars bring hundreds to the mosque.
“We hire security companies,” he said, noting that his group’s annual iftar celebrations bring hundreds into the mosque.
Baseer said his group also requests extra police patrols during Ramadan, “mainly as a deterrent.”
Still, Baseer noted, his group’s interfaith iftars have connected communities for 20 years.
“These iftars have taken on special meaning since 9-11,” he said. “We get together, eat Persian food and have great conversations. I think it helps us understand that we’re not much different from one another.”
Arbazz Mohammed, co-founder of San Bernardino-based Sahaba Initiative, a community service organization, said recent outreach to Muslims from other groups challenges the Muslim community to do even more to reach out. His group will host its interfaith iftar Saturday.
“Today, in America, a lot of established ideals are being challenged,” he said. “It’s been a hectic year with the elections and the (anti-Muslim) rhetoric.
“This Ramadan is a time for all of us to come together as one.”