Unity at Mayor’s Ramadan dinner — but a reminder of war after


A message of unity prevailed at the 16th Mayor’s Ramadan Unity Dinner, attended by over 300 people Monday night at the Lansing Center.

But afterward, one of the leaders of Greater Lansing’s Islamic community made it clear that its members want another message to be heard: The Biden administration’s position on the war in Gaza must change — a message they communicated with their “uncommitted” votes in last week’s Democratic presidential primary.

“After having overwhelmingly supported Biden in the last election, and with his policies being antithetical to our values, many people had lost faith and were going to give up on voting,” said Thasin Sardar, a trustee for the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing.

“This ‘uncommitted’ vote, in many ways, is a way of ensuring that the voters don’t lose hope and will continue to make voting a habit,” he added.

At the dinner itself, Sardar thanked the community for standing by its Arab American and Muslim neighbors during a time when the nation’s political landscape has increasingly singled out those populations in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas.

“In recent years, when the political discourse hasn’t solved the climate of fear and mistrust, the wider community has rallied around us, and local law enforcement has had our backs many times without us even seeking such help,” Sardar said.

In turn, he added, many Arab American and Muslim residents of Greater Lansing aim to continue to give back as well.

“We don’t just start or stop locally and nationally. We also try to serve across the borders,” Sardar said, noting that two local surgeons, Omar Qahwash and Hisham Qandeel, are planning trips to Gaza within the next week “to perform much-needed surgeries in the middle of the war zone.”

The announcement drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night.

The dinner also boosted efforts to help those in need locally. It raised over $25,000 for the Greater Lansing Food Bank, in part thanks to a last-minute additional donation from the Islamic Center of East Lansing.

“I don’t know of any other cities that do anything similar, so I think this particular model is unique to the Lansing area,” Sardar said.

Many of Greater Lansing’s most active Muslim leaders were on hand at the interfaith event, including emcee Farhan Bhatti, the medical director of the nonprofit clinic Care Free Medical, and keystone speaker Imam Sohail Chaudhry, the resident spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of East Lansing.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and East Lansing Mayor George Brookover also spoke.

The speakers touched on the parallels between the fight against food scarcity and Ramadan, the Islamic holy period when believers will fast from dawn through sunset. It begins Sunday (March 10) and ends April 10. The practice is intended to help promote self-discipline and empathy for those who are less fortunate.

“Ramadan, of course, is about sacrifice. It’s about remembering our creator and being thankful for all the blessings that we have and remembering those who really don’t have the same blessings. We donate money to the food bank in the spirit of that remembrance,” Bhatti explained.

In an interview following the event, Sardar said the work of the Islamic Center often centers around encouraging civic participation. One such effort came in Michigan’s presidential primary on Feb. 27, when 13.16% of Ingham County’s 28,921 Democratic voters cast their ballots for “uncommitted” to communicate disapproval of President Joe Biden’s support of Israel. 

Sardar saw that effort, which nearly matched the statewide average of 13.3%, as a resounding success.

“Our initial target of 10,000 ‘uncommitted’ votes statewide was meant to scratch the surface and say, ‘Hey, this is what Trump beat Clinton by in 2016, and this could cost Biden the election if all 10,000 of us don’t show up in November.’ It was a pleasant surprise that we ended up getting 10 times as many,” Sardar said, referring to the 100,000 “uncommitted” votes cast across Michigan. 

The goal was to send a message to legislators at all levels of government as well as to the Biden administration.

“We protested on the streets, we called them on the phones and wrote letters and emails to them, and they still wouldn’t listen. So, this was the only other way we could make our voice heard,” Sardar said.

He believes many within and outside of the Muslim community have experienced “voter apathy” in recent years, but he viewed the recent turnout as evidence of a resurgence in electoral participation.

He added that the movement toward promoting a ceasefire in Gaza has brought people from all walks of life into the fold.

“People assumed it was just the Arab American and Muslim population who voted ‘uncommitted,’ but I don’t think so. I think many people of other faiths, people of the progressive persuasion, voted along with us,” he said.

Another local win came on Feb. 12, when the Lansing City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The decision followed months of public activism, with dozens of people coming to ask the Council to pass it during public comment portions of their formal meetings.

“I thought it would be a contested one, but I was hopeful that it would pass in Lansing, just as I was hopeful about East Lansing, which was disappointing,” Sardar said, referring to a Jan. 9 East Lansing City Council meeting, when the body voted 4-1 against a similar proposal.

Sardar said he intends to continue asking the Council to revisit that decision, citing the combined influence cities can hold if they adopt similar resolutions. He also noted how, after the East Lansing Council denied that resolution, Council member Mark Meadows indicated a willingness to pass a different version in the future. 

“At this point, I have not heard otherwise — that the East Lansing Council members are not interested in pursuing this vision anymore. So, we were hopeful that they would keep to their word and try to actually bring up a new draft of a resolution, but that has not happened so far,” he said.

 He holds out hope that the Council can find the time to support a new version.

“Some people think that local government cannot impact things worldwide, but I feel that the force against war against injustice starts locally. It starts by pressuring local officials, and then we can keep amplifying that voice and take it to the highest levels,” he said. 



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