Observing Ramadan will aid understanding, he says
San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis was speaking to 7,000 Bay Area Muslims last year at the end of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting, when he suddenly realized that they had gone hungry when he had not. And they were celebrating an experience he did not know.
“It just dawned on me,” he recalled. “If I am truly going to understand the nuances of this religion, I should join them in this fast.”
So this week, Davis will join the world’s nearly 1 billion Muslims in forgoing food and drink from sunrise to sunset in the monthlong observance of Ramadan. Leaders in law enforcement and the Muslim community say they have never heard of a police chief fasting for the entire month. Last year in the United Kingdom, the highest ranking police officer at New Scotland Yard fasted for one day.
Davis’ decision carries enormous weight with Muslims, who remain worried about racial profiling, continued backlash from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, most recently in San Jose, the fatal police shooting of a Bosnian Muslim outside a coffee shop.
“It is a remarkable gesture,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “The fact that a major law enforcement figure in the country is making this gesture will help bridge some of the gaps in this country.”
During Ramadan, Davis plans to break the fast nightly with a different Muslim family, and will extend an invitation to eat at his home.
The police chief, who is a Mormon, said his decision to observe Ramadan is not motivated by politics or publicity but by a desire to “truly understand.” Davis made the commitment when he was the deputy police chief and now, as the chief, he believes fasting can help him connect with a community that is growing in the South Bay.
“Everyone needs to know that the chief is the chief for everybody — not just the majority, not just for those in power,” Davis, 47, said. “I need to be a chief for everybody, particularly for those who’ve felt marginalized.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the San Jose Police Department has taken steps to improve relations between officers and area Arab-Americans and Muslims, some of whom were targeted in a wave of harassment and violence. In the days after the attacks, San Jose police responded to a spike in reported hate crimes, including ethnic slurs on answering machines, a mutilated rat on a doorstep and racist graffiti at a high school.
Davis read about Islam, visited a mosque and was invited to speak at the Eid al-Fitr, an annual celebration marking the end of Ramadan. At last year’s festival, Davis said he found his inspiration and announced he would fast the next Ramadan.
“Everyone in the community was just shocked — in a good way,” said South Bay Islamic Association religious director Imam Tahir Anwar. “You get Muslims to fast; you get non-practicing Muslims to fast. But then you have the chief of one of the biggest cities in America who just committed to fasting during the month of Ramadan. . . . It’s a sign that it came from the heart.”
Anwar said Davis’ gesture signals to the Muslim community a willingness among San Jose’s leaders to try to learn more about Islam.
Across the country, some Muslims have been singled out by law enforcement officers questioning, as their homes and mosques were searched for signs of terrorist activity. Anwar said experiences with local police have been more favorable, and he considers Davis his friend.
For Abraham Ra’oof, Davis is his boss. Ra’oof, a patrol officer with the San Jose Police Department and one of at least two Muslim officers on the force, said he was not surprised by the chief’s decision.
“He’s a man open to every religion, to every ethnic group,” said Ra’oof, an eight-year veteran of the force. “If he wants to try it out for his own personal reasons, I think it’s outstanding.”
Fasting for Ramadan, he said, is a sacred expression of dedication and for “God’s pleasure.”
In Islam, Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar. Because the lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, the holy month of fasting rotates every year. This year, it is expected to begin on Friday or Saturday, depending on whether a new moon is sighted on Thursday night. Ramadan will last 29 or 30 days.
Muslims believe that during the ninth month in the seventh century, God revealed the first verses of the Koran, Islam’s holy text, to the prophet Muhammad. As a sign of deference, observers of Ramadan abstain from eating, drinking and sex during the daylight hours. But every night, feasts mark the breaking of the fast, or Iftar.
Since he was sworn in as police chief in January, Davis has been meeting regularly with members of the Vietnamese and Latino communities, and the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also has revamped the department’s cultural sensitivity training to feature a series of short police-produced videos on different members of the community. The first, set to be shown to officers this week, is about Islam.
Davis said he is confident his fasting will not affect his 72-hour work week commanding the department’s 1,400 officers in the country’s 11th-largest city.
Already a lean tri-athlete, Davis said he often finds himself too busy to eat. His breakfasts usually consist of a few handfuls of Triscuit wheat crackers and a bottled water.
And fasting, he said, is not unheard of in his Mormon religion. Since he was a child, Davis has fasted the first Sunday of every month. The day also is marked by charity, donating to the poor — a virtue shared in Islam. The experience, he said, is humbling.
“It helps you focus on what is important in life: your family, the roof over your head, the community you live in, the country that afforded us all of this,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all the same.”