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?

78 Responses to “Fast-a-thon — the new Ramadan”

  1. 1Reine on Sep 12, 2008 at 4:51 pm:

    Excellent and interesting report Zombie. I love your work.

  2. 2Doug on Sep 12, 2008 at 5:51 pm:

    Perhaps they’re advocating a secular, peaceful holiday akin to the Quakers?

    Like, that’s totally what I think they’re doing.


  3. 3Thanos on Sep 12, 2008 at 6:30 pm:

    This is kind of like that time the moonies picked me up hitch hiking. “Oh! We have plenty of food, you just have to stop by our temple”…. which was about thirty miles outside my path. They refused to stop until I grabbed the gearshift and shut off the engine.

  4. 4ocelot on Sep 12, 2008 at 6:55 pm:


    You (or someone local to Berkeley) might consider writing to
    the Daily Cal ( either alerting their news folks,
    or writing an opinion piece. Alas, I no longer live in the People’s

    Alternatively, or in addition, someone may wish to pursue the
    issue of identication of the sponsoring group on the flier. I think
    it’s a loser with the UC Berkeley administration, because MSA has
    its acronym registered. The deceptive proselytizing angle might
    get some tread with the Daily Cal.


    Now for the references!

    Here are the guidelines for fliers posted by registered student organizations at Cal:

    Here is the record of the Muslim Student Association registration:

    Here is Article 1 of the organization’s constitution, adopted 4/28/2005,
    available at

    Article I – Name
    Section 1: Official Name
    The organization will officially be known as the Muslim Student Union of Berkeley.
    Section 2: Other Names
    The organization will also be known as the Muslim Students Association of Berkeley, the
    Islamic Study Circle of Berkeley, and the abbreviation CalMSA as well as the acronyms
    MSU, MSA, and ISC. The organization will be referred to as the MSU in this document.

    Here is an article from the Daily Cal describing Fast-A-Thon 2006:

  5. 5Katzpaugh on Sep 13, 2008 at 12:18 pm:

    Zombie: You are terrific. A little correction: they run a gantlet, not a gauntlet. A gauntlet is a glove.

    - Katzpaugh

  6. 6zombie on Sep 13, 2008 at 12:44 pm:

    ocelet: Thanks for the Daily Cal link. I included it in an update to the post (see above). As for notifying the Daily Cal — I doubt they’d be interested. Their 2006 article was just a puff piece, and I don’t think anything would be different now.

    Katzpaugh: “Gauntlet” is a valid alternate spelling for “gantlet.” In fact, in my dictionary, “gauntlet” is the preferred spelling (i.e. “running the gauntlet”). Yes, “gauntlet” does mean glove, but even according to Wikipedia it’s also now the standard spelling for the idiom. Thanks for keeping me on my toes, though!

    Thanos: You’re lucky to have escaped the Moonies! The famous technique they do in the Bay Area is invite you over to dinner, make you take off your shoes as you enter the house (so as to “not damage the carpet”), and then they hide your shoes (and/or your coat) so you can’t leave once it dawns on you you’re being indoctrinated. I know several people who lost shoes that way, running out into the street barefoot to escape!

  7. 7Casey on Sep 13, 2008 at 1:08 pm:

    Hi, I actually work with the “Benjamin Creme New-Age-y sect”. I agree the information we give out can be considered “out there” at first glance but I would hope we don’t do a bait and switch type technique anywhere to get people involved. What type of approach are U.C. Berkley students faced with when it comes to the Benjamin Creme group? If there is in fact some deception going on I wouldn’t mind know and hopefully trying to change.


  8. 8zombie on Sep 13, 2008 at 1:55 pm:

    Casey: I don’t really know much about the Benjamin Creme group (or even what their self-identified name is), only that their posters and flyers are kind of mystifying, and that a new student seeing them would probably have no clue as to what they’re all about. I don’t know if that counts as “deception” or simply ineffective recruiting. But I do know one person who (years ago) who unwittingly went to a Benjamin Creme event, and did not even realize at first it was a religious sect. She just thought it was a philosophy lecture or something along those lines. She successfully bailed out. I only cite them as one of the many offbeat religious choices new Berkeley students encounter each year.

  9. 9Casey on Sep 13, 2008 at 2:34 pm:

    Fair enough Zombie. I won’t go into the whole story because I know that’s not what you are looking for. I will say that the core story is about social, economic, and political changes that we all know are needed but seem to big to get done. But at the center is a spiritual teacher that is here to give us some pretty good guidance and more importantly some inspiration and a push in the right direction so humanity (not the world teacher) can start making the needed changes. The connection is that everything is spiritual (of course if you take the story for what it is) and that we need to come at the problems of the world with that in mind. Specifically that we are all one and there is no seperation between us so letting a person go hungry is really the same as letting yourself go hungry.

    So I can see if the flyer was more directed to the first “real world” aspects that your friend might not have expected such a spiritual angle to it and she might have been put off or felt it was not connected to the flyer. However I can’t imagine the words “World Teacher” or “Christ” did not appear in some form on the flyer and all of the flyers have the web site which if you go there just to the first page I don’t think it can be mistaken for a purely philosophical lecture. The last thing all say is this is about information being made available not trying to get anyone to “join” anything.

    Thanks for the clarification,

  10. 10average_guy on Sep 13, 2008 at 6:42 pm:

    Since September 2001? Fast-aThon started in Septermber 2001? So I guess these are the “moderate” members of The Cult Of Islam and the events of 9/11 have no relevance to them…..

  11. 11Hard Rain on Sep 14, 2008 at 12:38 pm:

    Hmm, skipping lunch is considered “fasting”? Guess I’ve unwittingly been partaking in Ramadan for quite some time now… :/

  12. 12Fenris on Sep 22, 2008 at 7:57 am:

    Yea, I saw that last year. Maybe it was just the University of Houston, but it seemed to be a dead giveaway. Couldn’t help but giggle when UNICEF set up a bake sale right next to the Fast-A-Thon sign-up table.

    Wonder of UC will do anything for Rosh Hashanah. It’s only a week away.

  13. 13Terp Mole on Sep 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm:

    San Jose State: MSA grifts students for “Fast-a-thon” Hamas fundraiser

  14. 14Terp Mole on Sep 25, 2008 at 2:03 pm:

    Hamas grifts students w/ nationwide campus Fast-a-thons campaigns.

    MSA terrorism financing at its most cynical.

  15. 15Lynn on Oct 1, 2008 at 8:12 am:

    Check out the explanation points at the end of free dinner!! And you don’t have to stand on your head to get it.

  16. 16montag on Oct 16, 2008 at 3:56 pm:

    “The only clues are the stylized crescent-and-star symbol and the word “Iftar” ”

    Just how many clues do you think are necessary?
    If I saw a poster with a big cross, I think I would get it. Or if it had a large Mogen David and mentioned the local Hillel chapter, I think I might catch on after a few weeks.

  17. 17al-Qibdas on Jan 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm:

    Love the advice. Thank you.

  18. 18Владимир Сенников on Jul 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm:

    Народ в подобных случаях говорит – Авось да как-нибудь до добра не доведут. :)

  19. 19Virtex on Aug 23, 2009 at 5:36 pm:

    Я бы еще кое-чего добавил, но в общем-то по сути сказано практически все.

  20. 20тaйнa on Oct 17, 2009 at 5:06 pm:

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  21. 21creating_ripples on Jun 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm:

    Hey zombie,

    i randomly stumbled upon this page through google. I currently hold a position on the MSA board at my university so perhaps I can clear the air of any confusion.

    First off, the intent of fast-a-thon is not at all to decieve non-muslims and the event is certainly not just for Muslims! In fact the whole point is to get everyone Muslim/nonmuslim to raise money for the poor! The reason for fasting, as Muslims do each year, is to feel what it’s like to be poor. You truly appreciate the blessing of a warm meal when you’ve spent the day hungry. So it’s appropriate that both Muslims and nonmuslims participate. And as you’ve mentioned MSA sponsors the event, so I don’t see how a flyer could be misleading, its quite obvious that its a day of fasting as Muslims fast. If the event was hosted by Christians then I’m sure they’d ask participants to fast as they do, and there is no harm meant by that.

    Well that’s just my two cents, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But that is the Muslim perspective on the article, I hope you can at least appreciate my point of view.

  22. 22omidaeus on Jun 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm:

    In an effort to entertain your blog reader’s with “insightful” information, you have broken the cardinal rule of ensuring integrity with your writing.

    As some others have previously commented, the flyer clearly screams “MUSLIM” to me. If UC Berkeley students cannot put the crescent-and-star symbol, fasting, and MSA together to realize its religious inspirations, then they probably shouldn’t be at that school to begin with. Secondly, the whole intention behind the event is to raise money for a legitimate non-religious, non-profit organization. Those who participate are not only contributing to the cause, but will also have the privilege of submerging themselves and experiencing a bit of Islamic culture. Isn’t college all about new experiences and opening one’s mind to the diversity that exists on our small planet. Since when did inviting other’s to engage in a holiday (Ramadan in this case) become a crime.

    Anyhow, you’ve successfully written a controversial enough blog to get some traffic to your page, however, your fledgling writing career as a credible reporter remains just that: fledgling.

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    Perhaps they’re advocating a secular, peaceful holiday akin to the Quakers?

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