No one should use religion as an excuse for bad behavior
Reem Townsend, a Muslim Palestinian American and member of the DuPage Township Board of Trustees in Illinois, decided to break her Ramadan fast during a public meeting that was held last month to discuss the location of a new local food pantry. Her eating during the meeting angered some constituents.
During the discussion, one member of the public sarcastically commented that Townsend “could go back to eating her lunch.” Townsend reportedly responded: “Excuse me, I’m fasting for Ramadan. We eat this late, and I am going to sit here and eat my food.”
In an interview with The Chicago Tribune following the meeting, Townsend doubled down, asserting: “So, basically, he was mocking me for practicing my religion.”
However, I do not think he was mocking her for practicing her religion. He was mocking her for being distracted during an important public meeting with taxpayers, the people who pay her salary and who she is supposed to serve.
The Tribune reported that Townsend “had to break her fast during the meeting at sunset,” claiming that is what “practicing Muslims” do.
During Ramadan, many Muslims do indeed refrain from drinking or eating during daylight hours and then break their fast at sunset. They are encouraged to “not delay” breaking their fast, but they do not have to eat at the exact moment the sun sets. In fact, many wait, which is what Townsend should have done out of respect to the taxpayers. If the sun had set when she was driving, would she have eaten while behind the wheel?
Her comments prompted another attendee to make a truly racist comment, reportedly calling her a “suicide bomber.” Using this slur against someone just because you do not agree with them is both immoral and racist. But criticizing an elected official for eating during a public meeting is not. Elected Arab American officials must show concern for the people they were elected to represent.
Using Islam and the breaking of the Ramadan fast as an excuse to justify bad behavior — eating during a public meeting — is profoundly unprofessional. Townsend should have waited until after the meeting ended to eat. Or, if her health was in jeopardy, she could have asked to be excused from the meeting.
There is no common sense in today’s world. We are quick to blame everything on Islamophobia. Like when an Arab American teenager last year ran from police in Illinois with a loaded gun in a bag and then refused to let go of the bag, meaning the officers had to use force when arresting him. Arab or not, what was the teenager doing with a loaded weapon?
Instead of teaching the teenager a moral lesson, helping him to change his bad habits, his family and friends instead blamed the police. The lesson the teenager was taught is that you can break the law and get away with it if you have a great excuse. They cried Islamophobia and bigotry. But the arrest had nothing to do with either.
Elected Arab American officials must show concern for the people they were elected to represent
I am not Muslim. I am a Christian Arab. I have lived and worked with Muslims all my life. When Americans ask me if I am Muslim, I proudly respond: “No, I am Christian. But I am Muslim by culture. There is no difference between Christians and Muslims as people. We both believe in the same God, but in different ways.”
Every community has good and bad people. We should not stereotype communities because of a few bad apples. But that also means not stereotyping individuals who criticize you, especially if you are an elected official.
Elected officials should not hide behind their religion or culture or use it as an excuse. Eating at a public meeting and claiming it is because you are Muslim is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to the public. It is disrespectful to the religion.
It is like when people are denounced as “antisemitic” when they criticize the Israeli government’s policies.
The only surprise in all this is that Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has repeatedly refused to apologize for his own anti-Muslim comments made during his 1998 run for Congress, made a great statement denouncing Islamophobia and defending Palestinians. “I commend Trustee Townsend for her bravery and perseverance in the face of such attacks and stand by her and other Muslim and Palestinian Illinoisans calling for an end to the hateful rhetoric perpetrated against their communities,” Pritzker said.
I commend Pritzker for finally making a strong statement in support of Arab and Muslim rights, based on the somewhat skewed reporting of The Chicago Tribune.
As for Townsend, in my opinion, she owes the public an apology for disrespecting them during the meeting by eating her meal in public. And, as for the man who allegedly called Townsend a “suicide bomber,” he is either a racist or an idiot. He owes Townsend and the public an apology too.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com.