Ramadan Sale: On Ramadan and Commercialization

When Ramadan rolls around every year, I see more and more articles about wanting to make Ramadan and Eid a time for children to connect with their Islamic roots. Parents and families search for ways to give their kids something to celebrate — a holiday time of their own to share with their friends who have Christmas or Chanukah. Even my four-year-old nephew knows that Eid is a good time in his life because there are presents (which even his aunt and uncles find new joy in by making it a time we can give the rugrats a day to look forward to).

I’m sure my generation will see new trends emerging, just as the generations before us have seen in their lifetimes. One of those trends has been the double-edged commercial aspect of holidays.  Many of us remember our first time seeing a Ramadan or Eid greeting in a weekly flyer, or in store advertisements. For just that one moment, we mattered as Muslims — but in a good way, for a change. More accurately, our money mattered, as it should. ‘Tis the season of news articles citing businesses that are clamoring to target and appeal to Muslim spending, which as a demographic can be in the billions.

I am under no illusion that corporations care for us as much as our fellow citizens (unless it’s an airline). Businesses have a bottom line to meet, and Ramadan has not been fully exploited the ways other holidays have. Nonetheless — let’s not kid ourselves — we feel honored in a twisted way that we are being acknowledged by corporations for something other than those phone calls questioning the animal by-product content of a sweet-and-sour gummy candy.

If we Muslims flex our spending power, cramming into stores and deciding to buy all that overpriced crap we don’t need, will we be safer? Will we shift from being targets to target demographics? When Ramadan comes around in the future, will outsiders think, “what are those Mozlems up to?” Or will they just shrug and think, “Sweet, it’s Ramadan, I could use a new blender and now I don’t have to wait till Boxing Day.”

For generations, families have proudly watched their young children strive to fast until sunset, then grow older and mature in their compassion and empathy when they learn their hunger barely compares to that of the less fortunate. We watch them wade into the deeper meanings of Ramadan as we pray they cultivate their relationships with their Creator by giving charity and doing good deeds as a part of their fasting. These lessons have always been passed down in the containers of traditions.

More than 1400 years later, Muslims still use Ramadan as a stepping stone towards bettering themselves, socially and spiritually. I am always in awe to see people find new ways to live a message of peace, charity and self-betterment. Fourteen centuries later, and parents are still finding new containers in which to pass down these lessons to the next generation. I don’t think that’s going to go away. But I also don’t think that brand-name fashion sales and other wastes of money will necessarily help us keep in mind the continual search for a deeper understanding of Ramadan in our quest to be closer to our Creator.

I feel obligated to mention something about those reports on Ramadan becoming an ironically gluttonous and consumer-driven celebration in Muslim nations, to demonstrate that it has already been sold out and that we shouldn’t let it happen here. As a chaplain, I suppose I’m expected to spout off something about how we can’t risk the spiritual value of these holy days and how we should learn from our Christian cousins who struggle to revive the spiritual core of Christmas. I should probably say something inspiring to encourage resistance to the general public making a buck off a Muslim holiday.

I’ll pass.

Buy stuff.

Buy stuff, but make your spending count for something. Make it be known that Muslims can have an influence on the economy. We know full well that boycotting works. However, spend ethically. Think about the social dimensions of charity in Ramadan. Buy fair trade, buy local, buy directly from artisans. Buy your child’s Eid gift from Goldiblox, a toy company that encourages girls to love math, science and engineering. Donate to LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site that supports Muslims working to improve education and healthcare around the world. My female friends are always going on about how they love buying a halal makeup brand called Tuesday in Love; proceeds go to support the “Because I Am A Girl” charity which helps girls and young women gain access to rights, safety and education.

For every dollar you spend in stores, match or double the amount you donate to a local charity. For every toy brought into your home, make sure one goes out to a family that couldn’t afford it. If access to money means access to power, then let our power create hope in the world.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should tell you to not to contribute to the monetizing of our month of fasting. But I can’t help but think of how being Muslim might just be that bit less stigmatized for the kids once they’re in college — when their non-Muslim peers think of Ramadan as a time that a local charity gets a huge influx of resources to help their family, or maybe when a neighbor thinks of Ramadan as a time when their struggling family business got that boost it needed from Muslim gift-giving.

The term ‘Ramadan Sale’ reminds me of the anxiety of pizza days in elementary school. I’d clutch my order slip, making sure none of the other kids saw how my mother had desecrated it by writing “vegetarian only” across the top. Reaching the front of the line, I was told there was only pepperoni.

Since the only other kid not to have pizza was the ESL student who brought his thermos of noodles and what could have been a box of prawn juice, the other kids would just call me “curry sandwich” (even though it was tuna). Unless the kids he goes to school with are just jerks, my nephew won’t be called “curry sandwich” today because we now have vegetarian and halal food options. The schools know they can make a bit more money, so we have those options now. It’s a small victory because eventually he’ll have to face the growing institutionalized hate the world is dumping on Muslims.

I wish the world was simpler. I wish I didn’t have to worry about the hate that our youth will have to face in the future. But if we could spend our way towards overcoming a few hurdles, then shouldn’t we? How great would it be if when my nephew reaches my age, Ramadan will be a time when all of his neighbors know that everyone will have a chance to have a little something. Here in Canada, Ramadan doesn’t just stay with us, but it also touches the lives of fellow students, co-workers, neighbors and friends. Markets in the real world, not scripted interfaith events, are where people interact with strangers and experience one another. Let’s take some of the spirit of Ramadan with us into the rest of the world.

Written by Khaiam Dar