Yuletide musings on the Ramadan shutdown

Yuletide musings on the Ramadan shutdown December 25, 2012

A belated Merry Christmas to those playing with new toys today.

Growing up a Muslim in Boston, I always resented how agonizingly bored I found myself every Christmas Day, with seemingly every business establishment but the local movie theater and occasional Chinese restaurant conspiring to deny me anything whatsoever to do. (See my 2005 post, “The Grinch: The Misundersood Mujahid,” for more.)

Today, at the age of 40, with family–and, ahem, broadband, even if NetFlix cruelly let me down last night, forcing this cord-cutter to bitterly sift through the uneven offerings on the Crackle channel, which didn’t crash on my beloved Roku–I’m a bit more mellow and philosophical about such inconveniences. I’ll still sooner permit an incontinent elephant into my living room than a Christmas tree, but I don’t root for the Grinch quite so zealously these days. Christmas is still hegemonic and all-enveloping to us non-Christians, but as America becomes ever more diverse holiday observance isn’t quite as much of a zero-sum game. At this rate, I may even send out a Christmas card one of these days (if that quip sounds petty, how many Eid/Hannukah/Diwali/… cards have you sent out in your day?).

Anyway, as I pondered the unrelieved boredom of most of my Christmases past, I had an epiphany of sorts. If this is dull for me, imagine how bad it gets for Christians living in many Muslim-majority countries during Ramadan. I’ve lived in the Middle East (more specifically, the Gulf) during Ramadan and I found it strange how practically all eateries and restaurants shut down completely during during fasting hours. It’s natural that many businesses would adjust to the drastic drop in daytime business, but I find it silly and unfair for there to be, in effect, a public ban on eating. The point of Ramadan is to improve oneself through abstaining from worldly pleasures, not avoid such pleasures by default because they have been removed from your environment. The argument is sometimes made that having fasting people prepare and serve food would be cruel, but aside from the previous more obvious objection, why does one never this objection raised in defense of those (usually women) preparing delicious, fragrant meals for the iftar?

I also find this state of affairs inconsiderate to those who are not observing the fast for one reason or another. Even in Muslim-majority backdrops, there is always a sizable minority which cannot (or, according to Islamic law, need not). There is always a multitude of people who are sick, pregnant*, on a journey, or experiencing some other unseen hardship. Should it be so hard for them to eat? Should they face pestering or worse from ill-tempered fasters and/or vigilantes should they grab a bite to eat in a public place (and there are indeed all sorts of examples of such behavior; in one particularly extreme and revolting recent case, nearly a dozen Christian nurses in Pakistan were poisoned with mercury, seemingly to punish them for drinking tea while their Muslim colleagues were fasting; as if Christians in Pakistan don’t already have it bad enough already)?

And then there is the more obvious exception: non-Muslims, who make up sizable constituencies in many Muslim countries, whether in the form of longstanding indigenous faith communities–e.g., Egypt, Morocco or Lebanon–or more transitory (but in some cases huge) foreign-born labor forces that run nearly every aspect of the economy. In either case, it’s wrong to impose Islamic mores and taboos on non-Muslims. Many, if not most, non-Muslims in Muslim societies are not tourists passing through whom one might argue can be reasonably expected to “do at the Romans do” while in Rome–they are simply people going about their daily lives in their home.

So, it could be worse.

* Which I think is a decidedly bad idea. See this post for more on that. (I moved a chunk of the original material in this post to there.)


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