I don’t think that Saudis will face a problem as far as a fatwa (religious edict) goes, which prohibits greeting non-Muslims on their holidays and which our Saudi newspapers and websites were keen on circulating towards the end of the Gregorian calendar. Saudis will see no harm in this fatwa because the majority lives with a non-Muslim minority mostly made up of helpless laborers and those celebrate their holidays and practice their rituals in isolation. Muslim minorities who live with a Christian majority are those who will face a problem. International students offer the best example. Those who are sent to study abroad and to learn to co-exist with other cultures would be confused when they see a fatwa that prohibits “greeting them on their holidays and eating from their candy.” Some of those students recount how when they are in a supermarket not sure which detergent to buy find mothers who realize they are new to the place and had just moved from family houses to utter independence and decide to help them.
One student told me that the head of the American family with which he lived when he started his studies took him for a drive to show him around the neighborhood and the first thing he passed by was the Islamic center. “You must be a Muslim who doesn’t miss his prayers,” he told him. How would a student like him deal with the fatwa and how would he explain if they ask him why he is not eating their candy. Is he going to tell him that his religion prohibits that? Or is he going to lie?
Heaven and hell
The climax is not, however, in this story, but rather in another one told by a man born to a Saudi father and an American mother who later divorced. The man, now married with children, recounts that every time his mother visits him his daughter breaks into a crying fit while kissing her grandmother’s hand and saying, “Granny! You are going to hell and we won’t see you with us in heaven.”
At the end of the Gregorian calendar, the world celebrates two occasions that the consumerist culture makes the best of so that one finds oneself surrounded by all manifestations of these celebrations. Globalization makes of these occasions universal ones so that trees, gifts, and postcards are everywhere and fireworks are seen across all skies. The first of those occasions—Christmas—is a religious one while the second—New Year’s Eve—is about bidding farewell to one year and welcoming another. However, fatwas make no distinction between the two and place them both in the same basket. True, not all clerics issue fatwas that prohibit season’s greetings to non-Muslims, but many people are now only reassured by ultra-conservative scholars and moderate ones are sometimes seen as not knowledgeable enough.
The lack of moderation on non-religious issues has become commendable so that hostility towards Christmas is now a form of jihad as if it is not a religious occasion, but just a day on which the U.N. celebrates the environment. It is noteworthy that this extremism is no longer confined to clerics and has now become a characteristic of many average people. A man recounted that he was an extremist in his youth and that he once lashed out at a mosque imam who preached about the “international tree day” and the necessity of caring for trees. At the time, the man, who snapped at the Imam for mentioning the day of the tree, thought he was saying the truth and fighting tyranny and injustice.
Why do people tend to be extremists? Is this is a genuine attempt at perfection and piety? Or is it a psychological trait that finds in the culture what enhances it and adds fuel to its fire?
*This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 9, 2013. Link: http://alhayat.com/Details/469806
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies.