Life as a Muslim lawmaker during month of Ramadan

Life as a Muslim lawmaker during month of Ramadan

André Carson was hungry.

For more than a week, the House Democrat who represents most of Indianapolis had been fasting from sunup to sundown, eating only before dawn and after sunset.

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Along with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Carson is one of only two Muslims in Congress, and during the month-long celebration of Ramadan, they stand out.

They don’t touch their plates during the repeated lunch meetings and receptions that pockmark a lawmaker’s daily schedule. At fundraisers and receptions, the trays of cheeses and hors d’oeuvres pass them by.

“You don’t realize how much you actually nibble throughout the day until you stop doing it,” Carson joked during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Later, after sunset at an Iftar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, he broke his fast and piled his plate high with braised Moroccan chicken, falafel, rice and Greek salad.

He then spoke of the importance of the holiday to fellow Muslims and their guests at the bright hall overlooking the Lincoln Memorial and the expanse of the National Mall.

“Ramadan highlights our collective duty to give more and to do more for those who are suffering,” Carson said.

Fasting gives Muslims a “deeper and better understanding of suffering, of impoverished and hungry people around the world. We are reminded of the importance of charity and our obligations to act on the call to service.”

Carson doesn’t want to be defined by his faith alone — something that can be challenging in a nation with just 2.6 million Muslims.

“Here in America, many people personally don’t know someone who is Muslim,” President Obama said during an Iftar at the White House last week that was attended by Carson and Ellison. “They mostly hear about Muslims in the news — and that can obviously lead to a very distorted impression.”

Carson and Ellison have both taken political hits because of their faith.

The conservative think tank Center for Security Policy released a 20-page dossier earlier this year saying that Carson’s “ties to the Muslim Brotherhood” make him unfit to serve as the first Muslim member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Former GOP presidential contender Herman Cain said in 2011 that Ellison’s decision to take his oath of office on a Quran “means you support Sharia law,” and he has elsewhere been labeled an “apologist for jihad.”

Ellison — who was elected as the
country’s first Muslim lawmaker in 2006 — says his faith attracted a fair amount of attention when he took office but is generating less as time goes by.

“For the first two years I was here, I was, like, the Muslim congressman,” Ellison said. “Whenever the press wanted to talk, they always led in with that: ‘Keith Ellison, Muslim congressman, here to talk about food stamps.’

“But now, it doesn’t really come up. And that’s a good thing.”

Carson describes himself as a member of Congress who just happens to be Muslim.

“I’m not an imam, I’m not a scholar,” he said. “I’m just a regular guy who honorably represents the 7th Congressional District of Indiana, who happens to be a Muslim.”

In highlighting his religious practices during Ramadan, Carson said he hopes to send a signal of inclusiveness to other Americans.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and is meant to encourage self-discipline, community among Muslims and commitment to the less fortunate. While most adherents are required to fast, there are exceptions for the elderly, pregnant, ill and young. Carson continues to drink water due to his high blood pressure, he said, though many abstain from that, too.

The timing of the holiday skips around the calendar from year to year, based on the lunar calendar. When it lands during the long, sweaty days of summer — as it does this year, landing between June 18 and July 17 — stomachs start to grumble especially loudly.

“The truth is I feel a little lightheaded toward the end of the day,” Ellison told The Hill.

He recounted how his behavior changes in little ways throughout the course of the fasting.

Cardio time at the gym slips from 40 minutes to 20. The small subway cars that run underneath the Capitol start to look more attractive and gradually replace the long walks from his office to the House floor and back during votes.

“It’s my favorite time of the year, because it really does help set me on a track for the rest of the year,” Ellison said. “I always lose around 7 or 8 pounds, which is not bad,” he adding, chuckling.

Both Carson and Ellison acknowledged that they have seen and felt some signs of religious animosity during their time on Capitol Hill.

“There’s been plenty of incidents I can identify,” Ellison said.

For instance, firebrand former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) once denounced Islam as “not a religion” but a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.”

But that rhetoric has largely faded. Now, lawmakers are growing accustomed to having some Muslim colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“I think Islamophobia is an issue everywhere,” Carson said. “Since the beginning of time, man has been riddled with phobia.”