For the first time, the crescent-and-star symbol of the Muslim holy festival of Ramadan is part of Washington’s main holiday display - a sure sign that Islam is forging secure roots in the United States.
At the urging of Islamic advocacy groups, a large neon-green crescent and a bright red star joined the 42-foot National Christmas Tree and giant Hanukkah Menorah in the park prominently located between the White House and the Washington Monument.
“This shows that Muslims are becoming more of a mainstream part of society,” said Fahhim Abdulhadi, a spokesman for the American Muslim Council, a Washingtonbased political and education group. “We are becoming accepted; we are less of an alien religion.”
In fact, religion experts say Islam is the second-largest religion in the United States. Christianity is by far the dominant one. Islam has 5 million to 6 million members, followed by Judaism, with approximately 4.5 million.
And Islam is believed to be fastest-growing religion in the country, with half its expansion coming from new immigrants and the other half from conversions, Abdulhadi said. Most converts have been black Americans, but the council says that other groups have started to convert as well. Islam often picks up converts on military facilities and in prisons, according to the council.
The Ramadan holiday - which began here with the sighting of the new moon on Dec. 30 and lasts until about Jan. 30th - is a time of fasting and prayer that marks the month in which the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad.
By some interpretations, the crescent represents the Arab lunar calendar, which has 354 days, compared with the 365-day solar calendar. The star signifies the all-purpose celestial guide that helped Arabs find their way through the desert for thousands of years.
Mohammad Mehdi, secretary general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, said the display “is a device to bring better understanding about our religion and people.” His New York-based cultural advocacy group applied to the National Park Service to have the crescent and star exhibited.
Too often, Muslims say, they are depicted as terrorists or war mongers - a problem they feel is heightened by insensitive entertainment media and a public too quick to rush to judgment. As an example, they point to the almost-instantaneous demonization of Arabs following the Oklahoma City bombing.
“People have this stereotype that we’re bent on world domination,” Abdulhadi said. “But we like to go to work, come home and be with our families. We’re no different than most Americans.”
Still, hostility toward Islam remains. On Christmas Day, the star from the exhibit was vandalized with spray-paint in a shape resembling a swastika. U.S. Park Police said they have no suspects, but are still investigating. A new star is being constructed and will be installed this weekend.
Medhi said the act was not only an assault on the Arab and Muslim symbol, but also an assault on America’s fundamental value of free expression.
The crescent and star symbol is becoming increasingly visible, on display now at the Empire State Building and in public libraries, courthouses, parks and businesses around the country.
“Each time someone sees it, they will ask about it and they will want to know what it’s all about,” Medhi said.
Many who passed by the sculpture here on a blustery afternoon said the Ramadan symbol has every right to be there, even if they didn’t quite know what it meant.
“If you’re going to have one religion represented, you should have them all,” said Melanie Cremeans, 22, who was visiting from Raleigh, N.C.
Her friend Alice Bennett, also 22, agreed, though she admitted, “I had no idea what it was.”
Nine-year-old Nikita Kudla, from Fairfax, Va., seemed to be mesmerized by the 10-foot crescent. “It’s cool,” he said. “It looks like aliens could land on it.”
Even though Rene Douglas, 39, a contractor from Manassas, Va., feared that if every religion wanted to put up a figure, the park would be overloaded, he added, “I guess that’s what the United States is all about: freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”
The Ramadan holiday is a month of spiritual discipline intended to purify the body and strengthen the faith. Muslims are supposed to fast and to forsake sex and smoking between sunrise and sunset. The days are spent in prayer.
The end of Ramadan is marked by a feast that often lasts for several days and includes delicacies such as bean pies, shredded sweet pastries and turnovers filled with minced walnuts. Many of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims celebrate the occasion.
Muslims hope that the more others understand about Islamic holidays, the more sensitive they will be to Muslim traditions and needs.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, hopes increasing awareness will make it easier for employees to ask for days off for end-of-Ramadan celebrations and for children to leave school. Also, he hoped that teachers will allow Muslim children to design stars and crescents when other children make cutouts of Christmas trees and menorahs.
“On a practical level, it eliminates sources of conflict,” Hooper said. “And it’s also good for people to be aware of other peoples’ cultures and religious practices.”