Councilman Saleh Talks Ramadan & Jersey City
This month marks an important milestone. For many of us, it marks a new full year since the beginning of the pandemic. For Muslims, this month is particularly important, as they celebrate the holy month of Ramadan starting April 12th. Jersey City has a significant Muslim population and we want to use this time and opportunity to familiarize Jersey City residents what their Muslim neighbors practice and believe. We decided to talk to the first Muslim councilman in Jersey City, Councilman Yousef J. Saleh of Ward D (The Heights) about Ramadan, the pandemic, and overcoming obstacles.
Ramadan is the holy month of Islam. With over 1 billion Muslims worldwide, Ramadan marks the largest communal fast the world sees every year. Islam follows the lunar calendar which is 10 to 11 days shorter than the typically 365 day solar calendar, so the timing on Ramadan changes every year. Last year Ramadan began in the last week of April, right after the country and entire world came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Despite the shutdown, Muslims around the world didn’t stop from parttaking in the holiest month of Islam. It is a month of reflection, fasting, and bettering your spiritual self. During the month Muslims are encouraged to be on their best behavior and while others might not keep them accountable, it’s ultimately between them and God with the goal of bettering oneself. They’re implored to fast from sunrise to sunset, which means no eating, no drinking, no swearing, no sex, no smoking during the daylight hours.
“You’re looking to be more generous, more grateful for your blessings. Part of fasting is getting back to basics. Imagine you take away all the distractions and vices in your life, even if you’ve done all these vices throughout the year. As a Muslim, you’re looking to reset your life, look inward, count the blessings you have, and seek to be a better person and have a better connection to God” said Councilman Yousef.
Ramadan Celebrations Pre-COVID
Usually during Ramadan, members would go to the mosque and have Iftars, which are big feasts. People would come in, observe jamaah (congregational prayer), eat together as a community and socialize. However, with the threat of the virus last year, many of those activities were prohibited and held in private with household members only. Under normal circumstances, you’d break fast with your family or your friends or visit different Iftars and dinners, sometimes even with Christian, Jewish and atheist friends!
“Sometimes people would fast alongside me for solidarity and they would know what it’s like to fast for the day. We would have a big Iftar in front of City Hall, we’d invite all the community leaders, open it up to the public and for anyone who hasn’t heard what Ramadan is, what an Iftar is, they would essentially be able to break bread with us. During Ramadan you’re encouraged not just to break bread with fellow Muslims but fellow Christians, Jews, Sikhs, atheists, everyone you know, in order for people to understand who you are and the religion you practice”.
Being Muslim in “The Most Culturally Diverse City”
In a study performed by WalletHub, Jersey City has been named “The Most Culturally Diverse City in America” and has held that title for a couple of years now. Many factors go into what decides how diverse a city is. Some of the categories WalletHub uses to rank cities include Ethnic Diversity, Ethnoracial Diversity, Linguistic Diversity, and Birthplace Diversity.
“…What that offers you on an individual level is a window to the world. A window into the life and experiential base of other folks, other cultures, religions, and walks of life. People who would normally not have the privilege of interacting with on a day to day basis. Things you can’t read off of Wikipedia. Experiences you can’t do on Google Earth. These are things you have to live through. You have to sit down and break bread with people, try out their food, go to a church or a mosque or a synagogue, attend a performance”.
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However, despite the diversity of the city, discrimination still finds its way into our communities and neighborhoods. We see it all across this country. Holding the title of “Most Diverse City” doesn’t make Jersey City immune to making some residents feel excluded.
“There were times when I felt like an outsider. When 9/11 happened, of course, that was a moment when the community was put under the microscope and our loyalty was put on ad-hoc trial, by the media mostly, but also by the public and by politicians who didn’t understand who we were. During the last president’s term, the things he claimed specifically about Muslims in Jersey City and the falsetto he repeated continued to sow damage. When 9/11 happened, I remembered everyone was concerned, remembered a lot of people taking their kids out of school, and I was just as concerned about my family and parents”.
In 2015, during the campaign for the presidency, Trump claimed that a number of Muslims in Jersey City cheered as the Twin Towers came down on September 11th, 2001. Despite police and local governments proving these rumors were baseless and untrue, former President Trump continued to spread these lies adding, “There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.”
“Sometimes when folks in the community are targeted, your emotions make it hard to think and respond and get the best of you. It happened to my mom many times in the past, for her headscarf or just being a presence, she’d be told to “go back to your country”. That happened as recently as 2 years ago, in 2019, around the time where Trump was telling Muslims to ‘go back to your country’. In instances like that it’s easy to get heated and upset over the situation. But the only way to educate people and the only way to let people know about who you are is to lead with love and it’s the best way to be an ambassador about your culture and religion.” Saleh remarked.
“We’re Just Like Anyone Else”
I asked the Councilman what advice he had for younger generation Muslims, especially those who struggle with being ‘visibly’ Muslim,
“Be authentically you. Educate others. Speak up. Don’t be scared. You might have moments where you question yourself, your identity, your religion. You have to understand the religion and lead with love. If you are trying to impart knowledge on other people, you’re not gonna do that if you chastise them or try to shame them. You want to bring them in and you do that by leading with love, not from a judgemental stance. I haven’t had the luxury of not working with people who don’t like me. People don’t like me and I still have to work with them. People who’ve said cruel things about me, said things to me, or behind my back. I never had the luxury of walking away, especially when the power dynamic is different. The only way to make them understand is from an empathetic stance, by being sympathetic, by not being judgemental but by talking to them in a peaceful and calm manner”.
A common misconception in the West is that Islam is a religion of violence, that Muslims are out in the world forcing their beliefs on everyone else and are engaged in a jihad (holy war) against the West. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Islam is a belief system and it’s ultimately up to each individual person to decide what they believe. Islam focuses on five tenets, Shahadah, Salah, Sawm, Zakah, & Hajj. These respectively translate to Faith, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage. Islam is like every other belief system. It has pillars, sects, a complex history and everyone’s own personal take on it.
As Councilman Saleh put it “…Muslims are just like anyone else, the important point is that we’re as imperfect as everyone else and we’re as good as everyone else. If you seek the best in us, you’ll find it. There are a lot of people silently doing work for the community that isn’t on the news or aren’t being highlighted. That goes for any ethnic group. I believe it is up to us to get to know each other and to advance the cause of multiculturalism”.
“We are supposed to walk with humility, we’re supposed to speak with humility and act humbly. That is something I try to do every day, even as a councilman. I take it as the higher you go in life, the more you have in life, the more you have to give back and the more humble you have to be. You have to remember where you came from…I was born and raised in The Heights and that was sort of the tagline of my campaign ‘Loyal Son of The Heights’ because I am from The Heights and my 23AndMe will prove it. The fact that my name is different is proof of the beauty of Jersey City, the Golden Door of America. We’re known for being a bastion for immigrants and first-generation people who are planting the seeds here in the hopes of a better future for their families, kids, and generations down the line. It starts here in Jersey City, and I’m just one small patch in the quilt that is JC. What we need to do is listen to each other, take in each other’s stories and respect one another”.
Different Cultures, Same Fight
Currently, in this country, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in cases of harassment, discrimination, assaults, and hate crimes against members of the Asian-American Pacific Islander community (AAPI). Like how this country targeted the Muslim & Middle Eastern communities after 9/11, we’re seeing the media, our fellow citizens and the government repeat the same bad habit again 20 years later, blaming Asians for the current world pandemic. I brought my own experience and that of friends in my discussion with the councilman. Growing up half Arab, half-Black, as a child, my mother would tell me to be careful and watch out. It is a message almost every African-American and Black child in this country has grown up learning but now I’m seeing my Asian-American friends now being told that same message by their parents. Be careful, not that we are doing anything wrong in the first place, but be extra vigilant about where you’re going, who you are with, who’s gonna be around because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
I asked Councilman Saleh what words of advice he had for the AAPI community and what could be done to begin to heal another wound in this country’s history,
“You need to raise your voice, you need to mobilize, you need to educate, you need to push back against this. All these folks that are allies of the AAPI community need to speak up and use their platforms to help further this cause of understanding the community and not just tolerance, but acceptance. You can’t just tolerate people of other walks, you have to understand them and accept them. That’s the responsibility of every human that walks this earth. When certain events like this happen, like the pandemic or 9-11, we have to fight for our rights and for our protection. In the past, the police used to surveil the Muslim communities but now we’re seeing them protect our community. During Ramadan, the police department will post a squad car and an officer outside the mosque to make sure we’re protected. I think that courtesy, that right, should be extended to the Asian-American communities during their high holidays, during events, or in locations where there are a lot of Asian-Americans. They should be prioritized in this environment” Councilman Saleh implored.
In 2020 alone, the number of racially charged assaults and hate crimes against Asian-Americans rose as much as 150% in major American cities. Misinformation as well as rhetoric often repeated by former President Trump, dubbing Corona the “China Virus” not only enabled this rise in violence, but added fuel to the fire. A fire that is still burning despite the end of Trump’s presidency.
Councilman Yousef continued “…the Asian-American discrimination goes way back in this country, all the way back to the 1800s. Discrimination against their community, not a new thing but it’s something that’s a virus just like the coronavirus and it needs to be dealt with otherwise you begin to see copycat cases of harassment and assault. Me, you, everyone. We have to raise our voices and allocate the proper resources and we have to protect our fellow Asian-American brothers and sisters. Everyone deserves to walk in peace and not have to worry about who’s gonna harass or attack them for what they believe or what they look like. Allies need to reach out to their Asian-American friends, make sure they’re okay, talk to them, see how they can help their families and the community”.
Big Shoes To Fill
We also discussed the one year anniversary of Councilman Michael Yun’s passing, a longtime community member, business owner, and immigrant from Korea, Saleh remarked “…we have this period in our time and in our country right now where there’s a lot of Asian-American and Pacific Islander hate, there’s a lot of discrimination against them and you look at Michael Yun. He was an immigrant that came to the United States, he built his family, he built his business, he built up his community around him. He wasn’t satisfied with just the ‘American Dream’. He extended that even further. The “American Dream” to him meant service to his community. Even before he became councilman, he was doing the same thing as when he served his term, he advocated for the community. I think it’s important for us to honor his legacy”.
Saleh continued “…it was sad, he was working until his last moments until he was incubated and that’s the kind of man he was. He was still looking at numbers for the health department, he was still trying to see how we could get ahead of this pandemic and how we were gonna make it out of this. That’s the sad part, he was working and was a nonstop workhorse…There’s talk of looking into having a caucus room dedicated to him, there’s speak of a plaza that might get built, maybe a police station. There are so many things we can do and we want to do what’s best to honor his legacy appropriately. That’s why we are giving these options to the family and we’re gonna wait to hear back from them. Michael Yun sacrificed his time that he could have spent with his family for the community and passed away doing that and we need to honor his memory and legacy. When I was sworn into office I promised I would do that and my job won’t be done until his legacy is honored. It’s a very sensitive topic that has to be dealt with a lot of gentleness and grace and that’s why we wish to leave it to the family and what their decision is and want to respect their wishes”.
In a closing remark, Councilman Yousef said, “…We’re only in this life here temporarily and we have to try to pass the baton onto the next generation in a responsible way. Whether that’s through environmental sustainability, education, and making sure we invest in our Black and Brown communities, giving people the resources that they don’t just need to succeed but teach them how to empower themselves and others around them. For being the richest country in the world we have a responsibility to the people that are the least fortunate in society. You have to judge your society on how they treat those folks and what resources you provide to them. Is your society great if it has skyscrapers but high levels of homelessness? Or if children aren’t passing in school? These are all issues that mull over in my head and that I want to fight and advocate for. During this month of Ramadan, I’m happy that I was able to have this conversation and I look forward to celebrating the month with everyone in the Heights and everyone in Jersey City and always here if anyone has any questions. The last thing I have to say is “As-salamu alaykum” (Peace be upon you)”.