If places like Whole Foods are launching reflection series on Ramadan, then we have made it, fellow Muslims. We have accomplished the goal of becoming mainstream in America. We have in our treasure chest a Ramadan Mubarak message from the President, an Eid stamp from the Post Office, and lights on the Empire State Building. Islam is now, at least superficially, a part of the fabric of America. And that’s what we want, right?
Lately, I find myself pondering whether or not Ramadan is undoubtedly and gloriously an official American holiday now. If it is, I worry that this new, supposedly coveted status might be stripping this holy month, a cornerstone of my faith, of its authenticity and simplicity. I often hear many Christian Americans mourning the commercialization of Christmas; they lament how the pre-Christmas day sales, the eggnog lattes at Starbucks, and the push for parents to become steeped in debt just to lavish dozens of expensive gifts on their little ones supersede the original spiritual and reflective spirit of Christmas.
As a young woman searching for the deeper meaning beneath all things, I fear that the most blessed month on the Islamic calendar might be following in Christmas’ footsteps, steadily being robbed of its complexity and meaning at the hands of commercialization before it even reaches a place where it can be understood by the crowds on Main Street, USA. Ramadan may very well be packaged into a commodity, wrapped in a shiny green bow, and sent down the conveyor belt for mass consumption before its non-commercial value can ever be extracted.
When I see and hear all the mentions of Ramadan today, I am reminded of “Ramadans Past,” and immigrant and first generation Muslim kids of yesteryear who had “invisible” childhood Ramadans. Ramadan in school was really the most difficult, where hardly anyone knew of Islam, let alone the month of fasting. It was a nameless, anonymous, quiet observation that passed without notice or fanfare–much like a wallflower holiday. The handful of Muslim children in schools across the country would try to distract themselves during lunchtime in the cafeteria, all the while either dodging or giving rote answers to the repeated question, “Why aren’t you eating? Not even water?” Most would find it strange, perhaps exotic, while some immature classmates would tauntingly put on an exaggerated display of enjoying their sandwiches—it was nothing that would land them a role on a Carl’s Jr. commercial.
We agonized over whether or not to skip gym class, but even when we joined in the exercises and games, we couldn’t fully participate, fearing an embarrassing moment of dizziness or fatigue. It was a time when teachers and friends, as well-intentioned as the may have been, showed us pity, not empathy. Believe me, we could tell the difference. I, like most other Muslim children, wanted so much to be recognized- for people to know Ramadan without my having to explain it, and to enjoy all the perks—the cultural splash and splendor—that came with good ol’ American holidays.
And now that it seems we have some of that hoopla, I feel wary of it. Despite my reservations about increasing commercialization of Ramadan in America, I have to confess that in some ways Islam in this country is more authentic than in many other parts of the world. I have enjoyed, or perhaps taken for granted is a better description, 29 uninterrupted years of freedom to fast when and where I please, and, really, to observe all aspects of my faith freely. I am sad to say not many Muslims around the world, even some in Muslim majority countries, can claim the same. This freedom is what brings some ounce of conscience to our way of life, especially in the United Consumer States of America.
Now that Americans are more aware of Ramadan, we see people from all walks from life and all variety of beliefs coming together to break fast with fellow Muslim Americans- yet another element that makes Ramadan authentic in this country, especially at a time when divisions are hard to cross, and xenophobia runs amuck.
Different religious traditions in this country are very much present as a subtext of American life, but only recently have some become acknowledged as living, active parts of America. The awareness is a welcome change, but traditions, like Ramadan, deserve an afterthought beyond getting a day off from school or jumping on the next sale at the mall.
Shazia K. Farook is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah.