While Rep. Ilhan Omar fasts during Ramadan from food and water — and even, she is quick to point out, from coffee — her responsibilities as a congresswoman often keep her from breaking her daily fast at a celebratory iftar meal. Sometimes, she said, it’s a quick bite to eat after the sun sets and then back to the House floor for a vote or to a committee meeting.
But not on Monday. On this night, halfway through the month-long holiday of Ramadan, Omar enjoyed a buffet of food as she and two other Muslim members of Congress hosted some fellow members for a traditional Ramadan meal.
The congressional iftar, hosted at the Capitol, was a night for Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) to explain their faith to their colleagues. Of course a break-the-fast meal in the halls of Congress included a hefty serving of politics alongside the naan and kebabs.
Your “religion gives you values and inspiration,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the Muslim faith, before he pivoted to current affairs. “We will stop this white supremacist, white nationalist rhetoric that’s so hateful, so divisive, so deadly, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), like many, also mixed religion and politics. “The Bible doesn’t tell me to love my neighbor if they’re Christian, if they’re straight . . . The Bible tells me to love my neighbor.”
The three Muslim members of Congress invited about 100 guests, including clergy of other faiths and Muslim activists. A guest of honor was Khizr Khan, who gained notoriety in 2016 when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked him after he spoke at the Democratic National Convention about his son’s death in the U.S. military.
Monday night, Omar recalled Trump’s comments about Khan’s wife, Ghazala, “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say” as a Muslim woman.
“Little did they know they were going to get the two loudest Muslim women in the country” in Congress, she joked of herself and Tlaib. Both women were elected in 2018. Along with Carson, who has been in Congress since 2008, the three represent the largest number of Muslims ever to serve in Congress at once.
“They say that we have three in Congress," Carson joked. "It’s really three plus AOC,” a reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He jested about getting the New York congresswoman to repeat the Muslim statement of faith soon. (She is Catholic and has referred to the importance of her faith in her policymaking.)
Ocasio-Cortez, in turn, showed her knowledge of Islam when she came to the microphone and talked about attending Friday prayers, or jumah, in her district, which includes a substantial Muslim population in the Bronx and Queens.
“When Ilhan prays, when I pray, when Rashida prays, when Ayanna [Pressley] prays, when Jan Schakowsky prays, I believe those prayers all go to the same place — up,” Ocasio-Cortez said. In an interview afterward, she said that Schakowsky, a 74-year-old Illinois representative who has been in Congress since 1998, has been instrumental in behind-the-scenes conversations with younger women, especially on the subject of religion.
Tlaib and Omar have been repeatedly accused of anti-Semitism by critics. Schakowsky, who is Jewish and speaks about her personal connection to Israel, has helped mediate debate about the contentious subject, along with Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“They’ve been so key in connecting these dots. So much of this quote-unquote controversy is stirred up by folks who are not from either of these communities,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about learning from each other, not turning on each other.”
All eight members of Congress who spoke at the gathering were Democrats. Eric Naing, a spokesman for the organization Muslim Advocates, which sponsored the event, said that Republican members had also been invited.
For the non-Muslim attendees, the Muslim members of Congress as well as activists and an imam explained a bit about the meaning of the holiday, during which Muslims don’t eat from sunup to sundown.
“It’s about developing understanding for the kind of struggles others go through when they go without. It’s about having deeper empathy,” Omar said.
In an interview with a Washington Post reporter afterward, she said her own awareness of her hunger during long days fasting while serving in Congress has motivated her to introduce a bill increasing access to free school lunches.
“What better time to put policy into practice?” she said.