One of the best things about Ramadan in America is that it is still under-the-radar. After all, it doesn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize the commercial potential around religious holidays, as the “holiday season” can attest to. And even as Ramadan’s visibility increases, it would seem odd that a religious holiday centered around self-restraint and denial of impulse could be seen as an opportunity to promote consumerism.
But in some parts of the Muslim world, that’s exactly what is happening. There are indeed aspects of Ramadan that involve consumption–gifts for children at the end of the month, dressing up for the Eid holiday in your finest clothes, and of course going out for dinner during the month–and which open the door for enterprising business to move it. Hence advertising like this Ramadan greetings ad from Burger King, which implies that you should be breaking your fast with a Whopper.
So what happens when you combine Ramadan with rampant commercialism? In some places, a holiday of introspection and self-restraint becomes a shop all night affair. Instead of filling the evening with prayer, the malls are open all night with a shopping frenzy very similar to the Western holiday season. Huge sponsored Ramadan tents are erected that that combine dinner with shopping and promotions. The restraint of fasting during the day is offset by a public feeding frenzy. And the solemnity of Ramadan is turned into a joke.
This kind of commercialization is starting to happen here in America as well, albeit slowly. I remember my jaw dropping when I got an Eid card from AT&T offering special rates for calling overseas relatives to wish them Eid Mubarak (blessed Eid). But aside from a few isolated examples such as this, American businesses are still reluctant to court Muslim purchasing power, even though a recent study pegged the total at $170 billion a year in the US alone.
The creeping commercialization of Ramadan in the Muslim world gives me pause, but I am hopeful that, because we are in the early stages of defining Ramadan in its American incarnation, we can head that off. It would take a concerted effort to solidify the practice of Ramadan in America based values such as charity, reflection, and self-restraint — values that don’t easily lend themselves to opportunistic advertising. If Muslim Americans are successful in doing this, perhaps it can offer an example of how other religious holidays can be reclaimed from the marketplace.