Sharing religious traditions is part of this season

The best response to division is unity through sharing and respecting religious traditions, argues Fatima Al Shamsi

People skate at the ice rink at Rockefeller Center on December 22, 2015 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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A day before Christmas Eve, my friend’s mother, who lives in upstate New York, put up a note in anticipation of the holidays urging her Facebook friends to reject the materialism of this commercialised season and stay true to the spirit of Christmas. She included a postscript in which she mentioned that she had “Muslim friends” (my sister and I) celebrating the “love and light” of the holidays just as she tries to celebrate Ramadan when it comes around. Whatever her intentions were, to me it was the best Christmas gift I could ask for. I have been trying to remain inspired despite the increased Islamophobic rhetoric that I have found in the media recently. It is this small gesture of solidarity, acknowledgement and tolerance that makes it all worthwhile.

At an NYU Abu Dhabi sponsored poetry event a few weeks ago one of the poets, Nafisatou Mounkaila, a native of the Bronx studying here, spoke about her frustrations that it has become almost taboo for Muslims to take pride in their religion. The onslaught of negative portrayals of Muslims has made it so that many Muslims are either afraid they’ll be physically or verbally attacked, blamed for the actions of extremists or looked at with suspicion and fear.

I strongly disagree with the notion that Muslims have to be more vocal in admonishing the violence of extremist groups or that they somehow have to answer for the actions of extremist groups. But I do think that a first step towards building bridges is speaking up and letting go of fear. The way that I have been able to do that in my own life is by sharing cultural and religious traditions. I relish any occasion to celebrate with my friends and I welcome them to come share with me. I believe that people appreciate it when you take the time to share in their customs with them.

Some people find it strange that I celebrate Christmas, that Thanksgiving is a major event at the household or that I know all the words to the Dreidel song, but to me it’s one of the ways in which I try to break down artificial barriers and show respect for the beliefs and values that I have been exposed to growing up. It is also how I have learnt to show gratitude for all the people who have shared their traditions with me and allowed me to feel at home no matter where I was living in the world. At the same time, it opens up an avenue for me to share my own practices with people, to teach them about Islam and its customs that they might not have known otherwise. My favourite verse from the Quran growing up was always “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another”. I find there is no better way to do that than with good food, friends and presents.

Last week, Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, decided to wear a headscarf during the Advent season as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. In doing so, Ms Hawkins quoted Pope Francis, saying that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God". As a result she was put on administrative leave by the college.

Instead of considering all that we have in common I find it senseless that we keep insisting on our differences. Religions are different and are a sensitive subject for many people, but I think the overall message often gets lost in the specifics of defining God. The actions of professor Hawkins seemed to me simply a compassionate response to the growing Islamophobia in the United States. A reminder, from one person of faith to another, that we are all human.

At a time when it is easier to say nothing, when influential politicians and businessmen are getting away with making fascist statements against Muslim populations, it is heart-warming that there are still people who are speaking up. In the spirit of sharing and celebration, at a time when the commemoration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus (peace be upon them) fall just one day apart, I would like to wish you all happiness and health on the occasion of the Mawlid and a Merry Christmas.

Fatima Al Shamsi is a globe­trotting Emirati foodie, film buff and football fanatic