Joining Muslims in Ramadan fast, one hungry Mormon police chief

Not once did Rob Davis think about breaking his commitment to his Muslim constituents. Despite his long workdays, the San Jose police chief never even had a drop of water during the daylight-hours fasts for the holy month of Ramadan, which ends today. Not even on a day that Davis started in Washington, D.C. — when he began to abstain from food and drink before sunrise at 5:30 a.m., or 2:30 a.m. California time — and ended well into the evening with meetings in San Jose. His mouth turned cottony as he became dehydrated, but the meetings prevented him from ending his fast until 7:30 p.m.

Davis says jokingly that he had gone 17 hours without nourishment to avoid airplane food.

But the fast was no laughing matter for Davis, a Mormon who decided it was important to show solidarity with the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Muslims who live in San Jose.

“Once I commit to something, I’m hard-core,” Davis said. “I made a commitment, and I intend to follow the rules to the letter out of respect for what they are doing.”

Davis, 47, joined about a billion Muslims worldwide in their fasts to gain a better understanding of the community. He joined families at their homes for iftar, the daily breaking of the fast. Davis has also been reading an English translation of the Quran.

“It speaks of his integrity and character that he’s doing this at a time when everything connected to Muslims is received with skepticism,” said Athar Siddiqee, who attended an iftar sponsored by Muslim employees of Cisco Systems.

“He wants to truly understand his constituents, the issues that they’re dealing with,” Siddiqee said. “We’re not naive enough to think he’s not getting backlash.”

Davis said he did receive hate e-mails during the first few days of Ramadan, but that the positive correspondence outnumbered the negative by about 50-1.

Letters have been flowing in from around the world. This week’s mail included missives from a university professor and his students in the United Arab Emirates. The professor wrote that he had heard and read only anti-Muslim sentiments from the United States, but that Davis’ action had given him faith that there could be improved understanding between the West and the Middle East.

“That meant a lot to me to read that,” Davis said. “That’s what we talk about — outreach and understanding.”

Davis was named police chief in January at a time when Vietnamese residents were accusing the department of cultural insensitivity after officers fatally shot Cau Bich Tran, a 25-year-old mother of two. Davis, who had been deputy chief for several years, began learning more about San Jose’s ethnic and religious communities and in particular reached out to Muslims, whom he felt had become isolated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the past three years, he had spoken at the Eid ul-Fitr, the post- Ramadan festival held yearly at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds. At last year’s speech, he promised thousands of Muslims that he would join them in this year’s fast.

“There was a sense of amazement,” said Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association, who guided Davis through his fast. “That’s a serious commitment. I’d heard of non-Muslims doing it for one day, but for a month?”

The value of learning about other cultures was instilled in Davis when he was a Mormon missionary in the late 1970s. He traveled to Argentina and soaked up the language, the food and customs. Davis now speaks Spanish fluently.

The two-year mission wasn’t without its problems. As an American, Davis said, his motives were sometimes questioned, and he always felt like an outsider. Now, Davis believes in going out of his way to make everyone feel they belong.

The fast has reinforced that belief.

“A natural process of reprioritizing occurs during fasts,” he said. “When you’re hungry, you only think about what’s important. It’s helped me define what my role and responsibility is as the chief of police, and that’s to make sure everyone feels welcome.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Nov. 13, 2004
Cicero A. Estrella, Chronicle Staff Writer

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