As a Muslim child growing up in England, I along with many of my friends suffered from a strange annual ailment that invariably flared up a month or so before December and was quite debilitating. Only recently an American Rabbi friend revealed she was a fellow survivor, proffering a fitting title for it - 'Christmas Envy.'
Today, there are still captive communities all over the country that can't escape the weeks of relentless build-up before the mother of all holidays unleashes a national blast of joy, bursting with shots of bonhomie and endless festivities. The schadenfreude remains acute while observing beautifully boxed gift sharing and glittering decorations that illuminate homes, public buildings, community parks and city centers.
For many Muslims, western holiday celebrations like Christmas once felt like the kind of universal affirmation we could never attain. But, today, it's a markedly different story. Celebrating Muslim holidays like Ramadan and Eid is now a burgeoning business. In the ultimate act of anointment, Muslims are being courted by major retail stores selling our themed holiday decor.
Commercial inclusivity is everywhere
This year, as well as offering vividly colored Eid gift cards, Target has invited Muslim families to share their Ramadan and Eid stories for its Youtube channel holiday series "Welcome To." This homage to their diverse customers comes with an inclusive mantra of 'No matter what you celebrate, or when you celebrate, we celebrate you,' and the Eid Ul Fitr trailer has amassed more than 1.5 million views in just a couple of weeks.
However, it was Party City that initially broke the mold in 2018, followed by Walmart and sites such as Amazon whichcollectively now offer thousands of gifts and festive decorations. Who could have imagined that chic stores like Crate and Barrel would be lending Muslims friendly advice on 'how to decorate your home for Ramadan' and clamoring to join 'the countdown to Eid'?
For some, the outreach dilutes and detracts
But not everyone is buying into Ramadan and Eid cheer, nor do they care for cultural parity when it comes to faith-based holidays. Some conservative Muslims lament that going from abstinence to binging on materialism will dilute and detract from the essence of the faith. They fear Muslim holidays could emulate the excessive consumerism of Christmas, whose retail sales have shot past the $1 trillion mark here in the U.S. in just the last 5 years.
Despite inclusive ads, retailers aren't guided by social altruism. It's more likely to be the financial inducement of the so-called 'halal economy,' (modest fashion, halal food, cosmetics and decor) said to be worth $2 trillion internationally, according to a State of the Global Islamic Economy Report published last year.
Almost a decade ago, specialist branding consultants Ogilvy Noor, part of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc, estimated American Muslim consumer buying power to be in the region of $170 billion. That number can be multiplied many times today. Proof, for some, that it's all about commercial exploitation.
There are persuasive counterarguments
Yet, there are some very persuasive reasons to bypass such reservations, illustrated mostly powerfully during the advent of COVID-19.
Mental health nationally has taken a steep dive since the pandemic, but for Muslims, there's been a starker increase in depression and even suicidal ideation. According to a JAMA Psychiatry study last July, Muslims are more likely to have attempted suicide in their lifetime compared to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish respondents.
When it comes to kids, according to a 2020 annual survey by Muslim think-tank Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), 51% of Muslim children are likely to be bullied in school compared to 27% in the general population. Additionally, 56% said they felt "unsafe, unwelcome, or uncomfortable in school." So it can't help when many school districts refuse to consider your religious festival as an official holiday. For some students Eid is not even an excused absence.
In fact, psychologists and the counseling community have written extensively about the dangers of making kids feel excluded, singling out Christmas as a holiday that puts undue pressure on those who don't celebrate it. This means Muslim parents and the community itself need to elevate the status of their faith holiday to help in making the vulnerable, especially children, feel more connected, valued, and in community.
It's also a way to support Muslim businesses
Commercializing Muslim holidays also means supporting thousands of Muslim-owned small businesses, which in many instances are run by women. ModernEID's founder Jomana Siddiqui was picked up by Macy's in 2014. Pinterest and Etsy, which have have tens of thousands of searches for Eid decorations, are packed with women among thousands of direct-to-customer sellers. They offer gifts, aesthetic decorations and ideas to adorn homes - all a perfect fusion of eastern designs and western modernity.
Enduring COVID-related isolation and remote working led to a hike in national spending, which is now approaching $420 billion on home improvement and decor projects. This explains why so many Muslim decor businesses are reporting a record boost in sales. Gifting crafts and edible treats throughout the pandemic was a way to uplift spirits, express love or affection and forge community bonding when physical communion was at an impasse.
The desire to build a legacy of family faith traditions for any community is natural, but for minoritized communities, it can be a vital crutch. Here's hoping that Muslims will put taboos to one side and see this commerce-driven trend with benefits as a sign of progress.
Rifat Malik is the founding Editor-in-Chief of American Muslim Today, a non-profit, national, digital newspaper that is 'Transforming the Narrative' about Muslims in the West. She is currently a fellow of The OpEd Project.