Muslims, Jews and Christmas trees
If you happen to be a Christian from the Western side of world, this weekend you might be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In that case, let me begin this column with a wholehearted wish: Merry Christmas! I hope this holy day will be a great time for your family, and bring you all the blessings one could hope for.
However, I should also warn you that not everybody in this part of the world will have such welcoming messages in the face of Christmas. Islamists in Turkey, every year, come out on the streets or in their media with the slogan, “Muslims do not do Christmas.” Of course, they have every right to not to celebrate a religious feast that is not a part of their religion. But they not only refrain from Christmas; they also protest it.
In fact, those Islamists of Turkey, and other likeminded Christmas-despisers, often “do not know what they are doing,” to quote the noble words of the very person whose birthday is at question here. They typically condemn Santa Claus costumes and Christmas trees as signs of “Western cultural imperialism.” But Christianity is not merely Western; it is also African, Asian and, in fact, global.
Moreover, Santa Claus costumes and Christmas trees are publicly used in Turkey to celebrate not Christmas, but New Year’s Eve. That is the case, for secular Turks also “do not know what they are doing.” They confuse the birth of Jesus with the Gregorian New Year, which is probably a result of watching too many American movies without really understanding what is going on.
What strikes me this year about all these usual confusions about and biases against Christmas is to realize that they are not limited to Turkey, or the broader Muslim word. Israel, too, seems to have a similar problem.
I read about this in an Al-Jazeera English story titled, “Israeli rabbis launch war on Christmas tree.” It reported how the Jerusalem rabbinate issued a letter warning hotels in the city that “it is ‘forbidden’ by Jewish religious law to erect a tree or stage New Year’s parties.” In Haifa, a rabbi, Elad Dokow, went even further, called the Christmas tree “idolatry,” and warned that it was a “pagan” symbol that violated the kosher status buildings.
Rabbi Dokow even had this most interesting comment: “This is the world’s only Jewish state. And it has a role to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and not to uncritically embrace every idea.”
What is interesting here is how this rabbi interpreted being “a light unto the nations.” Not by being open, respectful and tolerant, as I am sure many other Jews would think, but rather by preserving cultural purity and not “embracing every idea.”
I can easily add this to my growing list of similarities between “Jewish issues” and “Muslim issues.” (See my Dec. 7 piece: “Jewish issues, Muslim issues.”) Both religions have a notion of religious purity, broadly called “kosher” and “halal.” And conservatives in both religions tend to see elements of foreign cultures as threats to this religious purity; in fact as “pagan” encroachments that defile the holy space. It is therefore really crucial for both orthodox Judaism and orthodox Islam to reconsider their attitudes about sacred space in the growingly diverse, plural and hybridized modern world.
Tolerating and even respecting Christmas would be good start. After all, is about the birth of none other than a famous carpenter from Nazareth. For Jews, he is one of their own. For Muslims, he is one of their beloved prophets.