How U.S. Muslims Grapple With the Complexity of Xmas

In the post-9/11 era, some members of this community perform mitzvahs along with Jewish neighbors, getting into the holiday spirit by helping people in need. Others retreat from the frenzy.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Muslim women in front of a nativity scene.
Muslim women in front of a nativity scene.Credit: AFP
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

The pointy fir trees, curtains of twinkling lights and "Sale" signs decked with holly – even the Mariah Carey songs – have become so ubiquitous as to feel almost all-American. But for many non-Christian communities in the United States, Christmas is still a very public reminder of their minority status.

“Even though Christmas is so widespread and commercialized, it’s still rooted in a Christian holiday,” Christina Tasca, the director of the Muslim Community Network in New York told Haaretz. “People who don’t celebrate it can feel isolated and left out. Whether you’re Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, it can be a hard time.”

Within these communities, the holiday season is often met with mixed emotions and a variety of reactions. Muslim-Americans are no different when it comes to the diversity of their religious practices, cultural expression and relationship to Christmas. Some shrug and enjoy the merriment, some retreat from all the frenzy while others actively seek out meaningful alternatives.

“We respect the fact that other people are celebrating,” said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, a physician living near Detroit who is chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “We enjoy the holiday season but it’s always an evolution how to respond.”

Volunteers during Muslim Service Day in Detroit, which is held on Christmas.Credit: Courtesy of the Michigan Muslim Community Council

In addition to one’s personal religious affiliation, the way in which Muslim-Americans engage with Christmas may depend on a variety of demographic factors, such as their family’s cultural origin, their official status and the generation they belong to. (According to a 2011 Pew Research report, more than 60 percent of Muslims in America are foreign born.)

Following historical trends that cut across cultures, first- and second-generation Muslim-Americans also have differing relationships to American society and customs.

Helping hands: Volunteers take part in an interfaith Christmas effort in Detroit.Credit: Courtesy of Michigan Muslim Community Council

“When a first-generation immigrant comes, they want to find ways for their children to assimilate,” explained Tasca. “Their desire to be seen as American can be intertwined with participating in Christmas.”

Their children, she said, may either further assimilate or reassert a stronger Muslim identity and back away from participation in the Christmas craze.

Post-9/11: Reaching out

Since the terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists on September 11, 2001, Muslims in America have faced a wave of discrimination. Up to that point, some say, members of this community tended to be more insular, but the attacks caused many of them to shift their perspective.

“After 9/11 there was certainly that turning point where the Muslim-American community has felt compelled to come out and bridge the divide,” said Tasca.

Ahmed concurred. “After 9/11, Muslim-Americans realized that living in a silo is detrimental to being integrated and being part of the mainstream,” he said. “There’s been an effort to engage constructively.”

In some communities, part of that effort has included using Christmas as an opportunity to give back to those in need – a way to “positively engage on our own terms with the holiday season,” said Ahmed.

Thus, on December 25, the Michigan Muslim Community Council will once again facilitate Muslim Service Day, arranging for volunteers to staff soup kitchens and deliver gifts, among other similar opportunities.

Ahmed pointed out that inspiration came from the local Jewish community, which had been holding a Mitzvah Day on Christmas for decades. In 2009, leaders of the Muslim Community Council and the Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council, which organizes Mitzvah Day, decided to collaborate.

“The Muslim community is sort of in the same boat as the Jewish community,” said Ahmed. “We thought, hey, let’s do this together.” Though each community refers to the event by a different name, they work in partnership.

“It’s an example of how our two communities, which in some ways have a great deal of tension, can still find ways to work together,” said Robert Cohen, the director of the JCRC.

Cohen and Ahmed admit that there is a small number of individuals in their respective communities who resist the partnership. Only a few volunteer opportunities are specifically designated for both Muslims and Jews, so the interfaith interaction is optional. But both say that overall the project has been successful and well received.

Communal reflection

Hanukkah is typically close enough to Christmas on the Gregorian calendar for Jews to "upgrade" holiday celebrations to the level of gift-giving, well-wishing and cookie-decorating in an effort to join the general revelry in the United States. Many Jews have adopted alternative rituals on Christmas, like going to the movies and going out for Chinese food. Within the Muslim-American community, some of that also holds true: “It’s a great time to get Arab food,” Ahmed said with a laugh.

But there is no seasonal Muslim holiday equivalent (the Islamic calendar is also based on the lunar calendar so the major holidays like Ramadan and Id al-Adha shift each year, rarely crossing paths with Christmas), and even if there were, the Muslim concept of bid’ah forbids the creation of new holidays and rituals that weren’t observed by traditional scholars and theologians.

One way that Muslims in North America are dealing with the holidays is by coming together en masse to reflect on their faith and discuss issues of spirituality in their community.

The largest gathering is the "Reviving the Islamic Spirit" conference in Canada, which began in 2003 and draws tens of thousands of participants annually. A "Knowledge Retreat" with Islamic scholars will take place this year from December 20-25, followed by the main event, December 26-28, in Toronto.

This major international conference draws many Americans, as well as Europeans and people from the Middle East, and features events for children, concerts and a long list of speakers addressing a broad range of topics, from the rise of atheism to the social collapse of Muslim states. Additionally, the Muslim American Society holds its 13th annual convention in Chicago on December 25-29, as well.

“RIS has been a good time [for Muslims] to re-center themselves and refocus themselves, and focus on their spirituality and their connection to the divine,” said Tasca.

Tasca's own relationship to Christmas is complicated by the fact that she grew up in a Christian family and converted to Islam. Christmas time therefore demands some compromise, but it is no less a time of love and giving.

“I still watch Christmas movies,” she explained, adding, “I enjoy the festivities and the lights. But I do have my own Muslim observances.” She said she no longer wishes people “Merry Christmas,” responding instead with “God bless.” She also pointed out that Islam has a robust tradition of gift-giving throughout the year so she gives her family what she calls “I love you” presents in the days leading up to or after Christmas, but never on the holiday itself.

“I think it’s something you deal with in your own way,” she said, of negotiating the holiday season. There is no one-size-fits-all model. “You have to learn to navigate what feels comfortable to you, what makes sense to you and your family, and what aligns with your personal values.”

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