Fast-a-thon — the new Ramadan

The Berkeley chapter of the Muslim Students Association seems to have hit upon a fresh idea for luring in naive new students: They’ve re-branded Ramadan as an apparently secular event called “Fast-a-thon.” Here’s their flyer advertising Fast-a-thon, which was posted in various locations on the U.C. Berkeley campus where students from the general population could see it:

Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, and entails fasting from sunrise to sundown. The dates for Ramadan vary from year to year, but in 2008 Ramadan lasts from September 2 to October 1, putting Fast-a-thon right in the middle of the Islamic fasting period.

Notice how nowhere on the calendar are the words “Ramadan,” “Islam,” or “Muslim” mentioned, nor anything indicating this event is connected to a religious holiday. The only clues are the stylized crescent-and-star symbol and the word “Iftar” — neither of which are necessarily giveaways to someone unfamiliar with Islamic terminology. It seems the purpose of Fast-a-thon is to strip away any obvious religious aspect of the event, to make it seem like nothing more than a fundraiser for the nonprofit group Doctors Without Borders.

I suppose their one explanation might be that the event is intended only for Muslim students, but the fact that the flyer was posted in public hallways and outdoor kiosks where the entire student body could see it, and that all mention of religion has been removed, suggests that the goal of Fast-a-thon is to introduce non-Muslim students to Islamic customs — without their knowing it.

(And this is indeed an MSA-sponsored event. Immediately afterward, there will be an MSA prayer session, which I imagine the new Fast-a-thoners can attend if they’re interested.)

There is an Islamic concept called dawah, which means prosletyzing Islam to non-Muslims — similar to “evangelism” and “fellowship” in Christianity. From all appearances, it seems that Fast-a-thon is an attempt at crypto-dawah — getting people involved in Islamic practices unwittingly, and perhaps only after the fact letting them know that they have participated in a Muslim religious ritual.

Every year, newly arriving U.C. Berkeley students must run a gauntlet of attempted indoctrination from all sorts of religious, spiritual and cult-like groups — ranging from the Hare Krishnas, to the “Moonies” (Unification Church), to the Scientologists, to the Benjamin Creme New-Age-y sect, and many more, as well as various mainstream Christian groups. The “normal” religious groups prosletyze openly; but one of the hallmarks of the cultish campus groups is that they try to lure people in through deception — they invite new prospects (generally freshmen, at the beginning of the school year in September) to events without telling the students their true intended purpose. At least not until they’re already somewhat involved. The Moonies and the Scientologists are particularly notorious for this technique.

One wonders: Has the MSA resorted to the same trick, in order to get potential new converts in the door?


According to this 2006 article in the Daily Cal and Wikipedia, Fast-a-thon happens at many other campuses as well, and has been around since September, 2001. What’s not clear is whether or not the cloaking of the religious underpinnings of Fast-a-thon is unique to the Berkeley campus; from the descriptions online, other Fast-a-thons seem openly characterized as being for the purpose of “getting students of all faiths to sign up to fast for a day according to Islamic traditions” to introduce them to “the Islamic way of life.” Are non-Muslim Fast-a-thon participants nationwide aware of this before they sign up, or do they only learn of it at the iftar ceremony when the fast is broken?

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