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memri
February 28, 2007 No.
1481

Saudi Columnists on the Holiday Atmosphere in Saudi Arabia and on the Muslim Attitude towards Non-Muslim Holidays

On the occasion of 'Eid Al-Adha, reformist Saudi writers published a number of critical articles on the character of the holiday celebrations in Saudi Arabia and on the Muslim attitude towards non-Muslim festivals. In an article posted January 1, 2007 on the reformist website www.metransparent.com, Saudi author Raed Qassem complained about the joyless atmosphere that permeates Saudi Arabia during the holidays, and blamed the religious authorities - with their prohibition on music and entertainments - for the holiday gloom. [1] An article posted December 26, 2006 on the reformist website www.elaph.com, by Saudi author and columnist Hani Naqshabandi, criticized the conservative custom which prohibits Muslims from wishing non-Muslims a happy holiday for the latter's holy days, and argued that holidays should be universal celebrations enjoyed by members of all faiths. [2]

The following are excerpts from the articles:

Saudi Author Raed Qassem: In Our Conservative Country, Holidays are Sad and Dreary

"[Muslim] holidays are religious festivals, but their significance transcends their religious aspects so that they become occasions of joyous public celebration. All individuals and [social] classes take part in the [celebration of the] 'Eid in accordance with local customs. The Christian New Year was originally [a celebration of] Christ's birthday, but this celebration takes on various festive aspects, since Christ's birthday marks the beginning of a new year and the end of the previous year. In Islam, 'Eid Al-Fitr marks the end of the Ramadan, [i.e.] the completion of the fast that Muslims are commanded to carry out once every lunar year, while 'Eid Al-Adha marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious duty that a Muslim must fulfill at least once during his life. [But] the celebration of [these holidays] transcends their religious significance and becomes [an expression of] joy, optimism and social and human harmony.

"In the West, Christmas and New Year's Day are marked by large-scale celebrations and carnivals. In nearly every town, there are celebrations in accordance with local social customs. A friend of mine who lives in a city in Europe told me that every year he takes part in the New Year celebrations, which include a midnight mass and religious chorales performed by celebrated artists. There are festivities lasting several days, and employees in most public and private workplaces take a Christmas vacation, with pay.

"But strangely enough, in our devout and nauseatingly conservative countries, the days of the 'Eid are always gloomy. In fact, our cities [actually] become ghost towns! As I walk around my native city of Qatif [in Saudi Arabia], I cannot even see any lights [decorating] the streets. The streets are deserted except for a few passersby. The markets are closed and everything is gloomy and dismal. The cold weather adds to the terrible dreariness and gloom that permeate this religious city. Why are there no holiday celebrations? [Why are there no] carnivals, festivals or entertainments? I saw an advertisement for a celebration in one of the suburbs, but it was for men only. I suggest that they [go even further] and limit it to men of a certain age, and forbid entrance to children and youths. The combination of youths and adults might lead to depraved [behavior], and if such a thing might happen, they must avoid it at any cost!

"During the 'Eid, the Authority for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice banned a play in one of the districts for unclear reasons, and during the last holiday, it banned popular songs and celebrations in Jeddah. The ruling classes suffer from a religious obsession. They are afraid of everything, and anything new drives them crazy. In their eyes, an 'Eid celebration that brings together [people of] all classes [and genders], with no discrimination… means depravity. Young boys and girls might mix, which would lead to sexual harassment! The solution is to ban celebrations altogether. And if there are celebrations... they must be traditional celebrations, which do not attract the young people who long for change. And there must be no innovation whatsoever [in these festivities], because of the taboos in people's minds.

"During the holidays, our country is so gloomy that many of its inhabitants leave for Bahrain and the UAE, or for tourist countries like Egypt and Malaysia. There they can go to the movies and attend plays and song festivals. They can also attend public holiday celebrations and [other] festivities in commercial centers without any limitations, hang-ups or pretense. Single men and women, as well as families from all backgrounds, are welcome [to eat] in the same restaurants.

"[In those countries], the atmosphere is open and nothing is forbidden, whereas in [our] gloomy religious cities, plays, cinema, festivals and concerts are [all] banned. Public celebrations are [regarded] as a [form of] perversion. How do religious people celebrate? They perform the holiday prayers, visit their parents, slaughter a sheep and give its meat to the poor, and [then] drive their families to closed-off resort towns. There they dine together in restaurants that are restricted to families so they don't meet anyone [else]. It is the religious [authorities] that impose this form of celebration upon us...

"The conservative cities are almost empty during the holidays. Where do their inhabitants go? They go to cities where liberal values prevail, but [at the same time], they criticize [these values] that are counter to their [own] conservative beliefs. They enjoy themselves far from the rigidity of their everyday lives, and after the holiday, they go back to their daily routine. And when asked if they would like their home towns to have celebrations like those that take place in the [resort towns]... - they always answer 'no,' arguing that they have their own customs, values, habits and traditions. This is a blatant contradiction."

Our Regimes are Despotic and Oppressive - and Our Holiday Celebrations Reflect [the Nature] of Our Regimes

"Once I was talking to a newly wed man who wanted to enter into a temporary [pleasure] marriage with another girl. I asked him whether he thought this kind of [pleasure] marriage was allowed, and he answered 'yes.' So I asked: 'If your daughter or sister wanted to enter into a temporary marriage, would you agree?' He thought for a bit and [then] answered: 'No. It is impossible.' Religious societies exhibit a flagrant and peculiar contradiction: What is allowed on religious grounds is banned on social grounds. And what is allowed on social grounds is banned on religious grounds. The 'Eid celebrations are based on religious laws and social codes that regulate the life of individuals and the community. Everything [in our countries] is based on these regulations…

"Our regimes are despotic and oppressive - and our holiday celebrations reflect [the nature] of our regimes. Thus, all forms of despotism, oppression and extremism are reflected in the dreary and anxious [atmosphere] that permeates our cities during the religious festivals. The best example [of this] is [the fact] that thousands of people from the conservative cities leave [their homes] during the holidays and travel to liberal cities which allow a measure of freedom, as well as individual and human harmony to visitors and inhabitants. By temporarily leaving their homes [in this manner, these people] implicitly convey that they do not accept the tyranny of the religious authorities that oppress their cities and constrain their life[style].

"I wish that we Muslims could celebrate the birth of Christ, that our religious and civil institutions would convey greetings to the whole world on this holiday! If only my people could celebrate the 'Eid in their homeland, so that the Eid would be more pleasant here! When will I be able to see plays and movies, go to beautiful carnivals, and attend concerts of music and singing? When will there be holiday celebrations attended by all, without discrimination? When will I see popular gatherings during the 'Eid, attended by [people of] all genders and classes, all of them expressing themselves freely with words of love and fidelity [to their true values] or [individual] conscience? When will happiness brighten the faces of [people of all] classes? When will my country know joy? When will I be able to see a smile on the lips and in the eyes of our people? When will we be free?"

Saudi Columnist Hani Naqshabandi: "Our Religion... Allows Us to Wish [Non-Muslims] a Happy Holiday and Even to Take Part in Their Holiday Celebrations"

"When I was a small child, my family forbade me from wishing [Christians] a merry Christmas, saying that this was a [form of] heresy. When I grew up, this prohibition remained in force, but I broke it. In fact, I was never convinced that wishing [non-Muslims] a happy holiday was a deviation from the [Muslim] faith. On the contrary, I believe that [our] religion, by its very essence, allows [us] to wish [non-Muslims] a happy holiday and even to take part in their holiday celebrations.

"Therefore, I wish all Christians throughout the world a merry Christmas, just as I wish all the Muslims a happy 'Eid al-Adha. The two holidays converged this year, and I wish we [i.e. Muslims and Christians] could also converge in the same way or at least grow closer to each other!

"Saying this, I remember an item I read in yesterday's [issue of] Seven Days, a paper that comes out in Dubai. The item said that an Italian Christian priest [Father Eugene], who has been living in the UAE for over 30 years, is organizing a great [Christmas] celebration [that will take place] in a church in the Jabal 'Ali region in Dubai. The celebration will be attended by some 4,000 [foreigners] who work in Dubai, including many who have no family [there]. [During the celebration] in the church, they will all be parents and family to one another. They will all be like one [big] family… What is moving about this news item was that the Italian priest's open invitation was addressed to everyone: to Christians and members of all other religions: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, polytheists and others…

"[In contrast,] in our Muslim countries, Sunnis do not greet Shi'ites on their holidays and do not seek to be close to them. In fact, they do not [even] invite them to their homes during the holidays, or on any other day. [So] it goes without saying that we do not invite Christians to [take part] in our holiday celebrations in mosques and religious centers. We have made Allah ours alone.

"Let us take a lesson from Father Eugene, [who says] that God belongs to everyone, that the church is the house of God, that Christmas is a [universal] celebration more than it is a religious festival, and that no one must be hungry, miserable, or lonely on this day, whatever his religion. If this is a missionary act [on Father Eugene's part], then I wish we could preach [our religion] in the same way instead of accusing others of heresy, and chopping off heads.

"A happy holiday to Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and all."


Endnotes:

[1] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/raed_qassem_festivities.htm, January 1, 2007.

[2] http://www.elaph.com/ElaphWeb/ElaphWriter/2006/12/200075.htm, December 26, 2006.