Faithful break Ramadan fast in La Cañada

As the sun slipped below the horizon on Friday, more than 100 Muslims gathered, filling the back patio at the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge. Assembled in neat rows, they raised their hands to their ears.

"Allah Akbar," they intoned — "God is great" — before prostrating themselves, touching foreheads to the ground.

The attendees were there to share prayers and sustenance during the fourth annual Ramadan Interfaith Potluck Dinner, hosted by the Islamic Congregation of La Cañada Flintridge (ICLCF) during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan, which occurs during the ninth lunar calendar month, began on Aug. 11 and concludes on Sept. 9 with Eid al-Fitr, or the sighting of the new moon. The world's 1.5 billion Muslims observe Ramadan — which marks the month in which the Quran was sent down as a guide for the Muslim faithful — with frequent prayer and by practicing self-purification and self-restraint.

"The purpose for Muslims to fast is to exercise our free will as human beings, to willfully say we will not consume food or water from dawn to sunset," said Levent Akbarut, head of the ICLCF. "It is an exercise of our humanity to practice self-restraint and to become more spiritual, to read the Quran more and to do more service and be more generous."

The event, which attracted dozens of non-Muslims, continues to grow, Akbarut said. It helps to reinforce values within the Muslim community, he said, while fostering relationships with other religious and secular organizations. And it eases what Akbarut called the "sensationalism of the headlines, of killing and terrorism" that are so commonly, and erroneously, used to characterize Islam in the media, he said.

But despite the evening's celebratory mood, the dinner conversation returned again and again to the headlines — the end of Ramadan falling so close to 9/11, the slow international response to the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.

It is frustrating to hear anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and constantly having to defend one's religion, said Doug Burpee, a Muslim, Glendale resident and retired Marine Corps helicopter pilot.

"You have to fight for what you want in America but at some point you've got to say, 'Come guys, we are Americans,'" Burpee said. "We are not the enemy."

Those who oppose the construction of the Ground Zero mosque are allowing extremists to hijack cherished American principles, Burpee said.

"I think that what has happened is the political atmosphere has taken a position where they are exceeding the Constitution of the United States," Burpee said. "The whole reason that guys like me defend our country is to protect those rights. The Constitution of the United States says freedom of religion."

Islam is being maligned because of the actions of a few fringe radicals, said Akbarut, adding that it is upsetting that an exercise of religious freedom is causing an uproar.

"It is unfortunate that our country has become polarized because of building a mosque," Akbarut said.

Others said that living out their lives as observant Muslims is the best anecdote for anti-Muslim sentiment.

"There is nothing that a Muslim can do to please those who dislike us," said Dawud Khalil-Ullah. "So my philosophy is I am not concerned about those kinds of things. I just try to do the best that I can do every day, have the best relationships with everybody that I come in contact with, and let God take care of the rest of that."

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