11 December, 2005

Ho Ho Ho! Ka-ching Ka-ching Ka-ching!

I am a proponent of religious pluralism. I believe that this is a strong element in the Islamic message. Here in Dubai, it is beautiful to see all of the cultural and religious diversity. I am glad that this society supports communalism within our diverse city. Christians and Hindus are perfectly free to worship as they choose, and although the big-city-feel of Dubai prevents residents from gaining a strong sense of community, everyone lives among, works with and befriends people of various faiths and creeds.
However, recently I have felt inundated by all the ho-ho-ho-ing in Dubai’s malls and shopping centers. Should a Muslim majority country be so willing to accept the blatantly commercial nature of the Christmas shopping spirit?

Okay, let me make it clear to you that as a Muslim, I do not harbor any ill will towards Christians or Hindus or people of any other religion. Within our social context, I feel that non-Muslims should be free to eat at work and in public during Ramadan. Heck, if I were to rule the world, Christians, Hindus, and whoever else would get the day off from school and work to observe their religious celebrations. In a Western context I was always allowed days of from school and work to observe my religious holidays.

But these days in Dubai there are fat Santas positioned in the corner of every mall. Gargantuan angel topped Christmas trees glisten alight with red and green sparkly ornamentation. I have even observed nativity scenes for sale here and there. On one hand, the willingness (or naivete) with which the Muslim populace has accepted these plastic Christmas shrines is a testament to tolerance in Dubai. Take my word for it that if a Muslim or Hindu display was placed in any regular mall in the US, it might actually be vandalized. I do believe in personal religious freedom, but these Christmas displays are undeniably public and not private.

I am disturbed when I see little Hindu and Muslim children running towards these colorful displays, begging to sit a top fat Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for …well, they don’t even celebrate Christmas, so what the heck are they doing lined up for a photo-op with Santa?

I recognize the longing and awe in the eyes of these non-Christian children as they participate in all of the Christmas hullabaloo. Christmas commercialism in Muslim lands has undertones of a neo-imperialistic nature, and its negative effects will be reaped in future generations of Muslim children. This is a further assault on the Muslim identity. I realize that the globalization (or should I say “Americanization”) of global popular culture is a facet of contemporary life whether we like it or not. But this Christmas in the Arabian Peninsula is just too much. This financially driven, commercialist-capitalist Christmas spirit has corrupted the benevolent Christian message of what Christians celebrate as the birth of Jesus in so many Western countries. Do we really need this in Dubai, too? Here the commercialism is already coming out the wazzoo. But giving it a religious spin makes it seem like an overt attack on the regional belief system. An unscientific eye-balling of the malls reveals that there is more Christmas decoration abound than there were Ramadan decorations. (Of course, I disapprove of the commercialization of Muslim holidays as well, and I don't wish to see the city covered in plastic Ramadan or Eid decor as an advertising gimmick, either.)

I know what the reason is for the bloom of plastic Christmas trinkets in all of Dubai’s major malls. I can hear the ka-ching of the cash registers as I type. I personally avoid reading or listening to rhetoric that has an overtly didactic or preachy nature, so I apologize if I have taken that tone here. But honestly, boundaries must be set. Let Dubai’s Christians relish in their Holy Days with fun and merry making in their churches and homes. Allow them the day off from work or school to worship and congregate with their co-religionists. Muslims and Hindus can also attend private Christmas celebrations at the invitation of Christian friends in the spirit of amity and diplomacy. But please spare non-Christians from all of the plastic Christmas crap in every shopping center under the desert sun. It just sends the wrong message.

People who share this concern should contact mall management offices and give voice to their dissapproval.

Thanks, and a heartfelt Merry Christmas to any Christian readers.

15 comments:

Emirati said...

Jesus was born on april 14.

waterboy said...

Hmmm... As Alhamedi would put it, what's wrong with celebrating the birth of the Prophet Isa (pbuh)?

As for Christmas commercialisation - calling it neo-imperialist is hyperbolic. The shopping malls of which you speak are mostly owned by Arab companies, and while many of the shops may be Western brand-names, a great many of them are run under franchise by Arab companies. Majid al Futtaim, for example, has some of the biggest Western franchises in the region, and is probably the biggest independent commercial property developer in Dubai (off the top of my head - Nakheel and Emaar are far from independent).

It's a strategic choice to make money by tapping into a cultural trope that is popular in the expat community - which, on numbers, is actually the majority population in the emirate. It's not Westerners foisting their values upon Emiratis: it's local companies seeking to stimulate consumption amongst the Western expats that Dubai's great and good have deliberately wooed to the emirate.

I completely understand and sympathise if you feel uncomfortable with this - I've long hated the rampant consumerism of Christmas, though I'll admit that I'm a sucker for a tasteful light display like they used to have in London many years ago - but the political economy of it is very much more complicated than you make out.

John B. Chilton said...

Christmas has become a non-Christian holiday even in majority Christian countries. See Marginal Revolution: Should Christmas be more commercial?, for example, and the links therein.

I'm not confident that it can be stamped out. The equilibrium seems to be one where when enough consumers are into Christmas the stores feed that demand, and those of us not interested are pulled in by our kids.

Perhaps there are still some malls left in Sharjah that have not succumbed and are realizing the benefits of attracting customers who do not wish to deal the Christmas onslaught or to expose their kids to it.

secretdubai said...

This financially driven, commercialist-capitalist Christmas spirit has corrupted the benevolent Christian message of what Christians celebrate as the birth of Jesus in so many Western countries.

I have to disagree with this.

It's sadly just as disgustingly commercialised in pretty much every western country :(

In fact in many western countries, "Christmas" is effectively banned for pc reasons in favour of "holidaymas" - just sheer, unadulterated, tacky $$$ commercialism.

At least in this region, which after all is closer to the kind of place Jesus came from (same ethnic peoples, same tribal societies) and where people still respect the Prophet Isa, you get a sense of the true meaning.

el condo said...

The commercial displays spoken of by Lucky Fatima far from convey any "true meaning". As long as people are uncomfortable with it, they will be acting in their own interests to address their complaints to the mall managments in question. Mall managements can then review the commercial implications of either retaining or removing the displays.

My personal opinion is that it is nothing but a blatant copying of Western practices, with huge commercial rewards attached. In the largely atheistic English-speaking western nations, the Christmas season seems to be nothing more than a major shopping festival, with the birth of Jesus Christ thrown in as an excuse (this aspect is mostly ignored, in any case, with greater emphasis given to Mr Santa Claus and his gift-giving propensities).

I don't know where Emirati got his information, but I myself have read varying accounts, and the general consensus among those who have examined these issues seems to be that Jesus Christ must have been born during the summer season, not winter, and most likely anywhere between June and October. During the rains and during winter, shepherds do not tend their flocks outside during the night. Also some of the calculations were based on the turn of the priest Zachariah to serve as high priest, the announcement made to Elizabeth, etc. No point going into all that here.

Suffice it to say that although Christmas seems to have evolved from being the celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra to becoming a "Christian" tradition purportedly celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (and mixed in with yuletide, winter solstice and fir trees from the far north), it is now almost universally a non-religious commercial extravaganza centred around the Santa Claus figure.

(This is not to say that there are not still some Christians who doggedly cling to the idea that it is somehow a religious event celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.)

Although my own kids look with interest at all these things, they do not feel any "fatal attraction" towards Santa Claus or want to sit in his lap. (They did get their picture taken with him once, but this was purely for the purpose of getting the gift which was due to us as we had shopped for Dhs 200 anyway. We later threw out the picture and also provided our kids with a clear explanation of "Christmas", Santa Claus and the rest of it.)

If there are any activities that provide our kids with fun without at the same time compromising our religious integrity or beliefs (e.g., playing in the snow or something) we have no problem in allowing them to do it.

secretdubai said...

celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra

One of the biggest slanders made by (fundamental christians) against Islam is that Allah derived from a "moon god" and is therefore pagan etc.

What I've always felt is so what? If that is how people understood "God" beforehand, does it matter if they called God/Allah "Mithra" or identified "God" with the sun or moon? That was before they had the enlightenment of the prophets, after all.

My opinion is that it is all the same god, just called by different names. We know that Allah and God and Jehovah are the same, with the same prophets (eg Abraham and Isa/Jesus) - and you will also find plenty of enlightened Christians who recognise Mohammed as a true prophet as well.

So I've never understood the Moon-God slander. I actually rather like it, because it suggests that even before the Prophet Mohammed arrived, people in Arabia were aware of God.

el condo said...

I admit to limited information on this subject...I think that prior to Mohammed/Islam, the Arabs did have gods that they identified and worshipped. Some say that one such idol was called Allah. How this can be referred to as "slander" just because it was a moon-god or whatever, is beyond me.

Regarding my mention of Mithra, just stating history. No implications intended. The Catholics admit they adopted the festival and "Christianised" it in the 3rd century or thereabouts. As far as the Bible is concerned, there is no mention of anyone celebrating Christ's birthday or any requirement to do so.

Trust this clarifies a little.

secretdubai said...

el condo - here is a link to a piece of propaganda using the "moon god" to slander Islam. I would disclaimer that in NO WAY do I agree with or support the sentiment contained in the linked file.

el condo said...

I see the point you're making. The fact remains that Arabs had other gods before Islam came along. As you said, there's nothing to be ashamed of there, it's history after all (which is why I wondered at your use of the word "slander").

Now that you have clarified, it might be pertinent to note that several bookshops in Dubai, as well as Islamic Information Centres, carry plenty of books that...er,..."discredit" Christian beliefs....however, Christian publications may only be sold in church compounds to non-Muslims.

secretdubai said...

I guess that I have a somewhat universalist(?) approach to religion: as far as I am concerned if there is a Divine, there is only one divine, and different names of gods in different religions are just different interpretations and aspects of the same. If it's good, if it's positive, if its worship involves respect for fellow humans, then it's the same supernatural source.

ORB-UAE - Creative Club said...

>>I guess that I have a somewhat universalist(?) approach to religion: as far as I am concerned if there is a Divine, there is only one divine, and different names of gods in different religions are just different interpretations and aspects of the same. If it's good, if it's positive, if its worship involves respect for fellow humans, then it's the same supernatural source.<<

Well said!

Anonymous said...

I'm unscientifically agreeing with Waterboy, El Condo and John B. Chilton as to how the infusion of Santa-centric Christmas theming in Emirati shopping centers is more of a strategic comfort-packaging consideration copied from Western/American precedents. That's not to say I don't find the NEED to do it so spectacularly in a predominantly Muslim country to be a little...odd... enough to be particularly artificial. (That categorization alone seems to be and I suppose will always be a subject of cultural debate in the Emirates, no?)
I agree with SecretDubai on the unhealthy and defelective commercialization aspect defining the season in Whatever Country, but I can't rightfully classify the neutralization of the broad-based holiday greeting by commercial venues or government offices, at least here in America, as "effectively banning" Christmas. People here seem make a point of saying "holiday" to strangers rather than "Christmas" specifically because the increasingly correct assumption is that the stranger to whom you're talking isn't necessarily Christian, and it just takes longer to do the perfunctory diplomatic gymnastics to include the Happy Hannukkahs, Sai'd Eids, and... however Druids greet each other around the Winter Solstice. Go figure, some people are Touchy about their religion, and why invite a tiresome snippy tirade about How The World Is Bigger Than Your Narrow Little View when you can smile, say Happy Holidays, so you both can both part ways and can sooner get back to the loved ones who know with more certainty your religious proliclivities. It's not particularly sinister. I have far more of a problem with those who go into a teenage-angst-melodrama hand-wringing lament wailing that this practice is a "War On Christmas" (Actual Quote by a Prominent Media Commentator, for Those Keeping Score of Such Things). No, What Iraqis are going through right now is war. Do not trivialize their suffering by saying your offended sensibilities puts you on an equal frontline footing against real bullets and shrapnel.
As for the debate on the historical validity of the Staples of Phophetdom, don't ask me, I wasn't there. Neither were you.

-Troy Z

el condo said...

FYI...those of you in the UAE who have access to "What's New" magazine may wish to check out this "report" in their December 2005 issue, "Shedding Light on the Nativity" (p100).

After reading, try and summarise the story. (No comment from my side.)

secretdubai said...

Fancy scanning it and posting a link here? Or emailing it to me?

I'm curious now ;)

el condo said...

Secret: Me not very tech-savvy; will try emailing the scans to you.

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