After dismal year, many Muslims look to Christmas for joy

Dr. Maysoon Shocair Ali, 69, is a Muslim physician who lives in rural Waverly, Tenn. Ali is among thousands of American Muslims who celebrate Christmas as a cultural, if not religious, holiday. She has a large collection of Santas that a Christian patient left her in a will.
Dr. Maysoon Shocair Ali, 69, is a Muslim physician who lives in rural Waverly, Tenn. Ali is among thousands of American Muslims who celebrate Christmas as a cultural, if not religious, holiday. She has a large collection of Santas that a Christian patient left her in a will. McClatchy

In rural Waverly, Tennessee, population 6,000, locals shower the only Muslim family in town with Christmas gifts.

The same neighbors who voted for Donald Trump have been Dr. Maysoon Shocair Ali’s patients since 1976, their bond strong enough to withstand the ugliness of the election campaign.

As they do every year, two elderly patients dropped off coconut cake at the doctor’s office. Ali’s collection of Christmas decorations includes Santa figurines another longtime patient left her in a will. Ali and her best friend of three decades, a retired Baptist teacher who supports Trump, already have exchanged their gifts.

There’s no single Muslim approach to Christmas – some celebrate as part of American culture, others don’t observe at all – but Ali is a believer in the holiday’s ability to spread joy across even the deepest divisions. And this year, she said, there are many wounds that could use the balm.

“In my profession, I’m supposed to be a healer and this is a time for healing,” Ali, 69, said one recent morning, sporting tiny bells as earrings and a wreath-shaped brooch pinned to her sparkly red sweater. “The spirit that comes with it is what we celebrate. It’s not about Muslims, Christians, Jews – it’s about the meaning, the connection with people, the human interaction.”

Every year, American Muslims debate whether it’s OK to celebrate Christmas as a cultural, if not religious, occasion. After all, Jesus is a beloved prophet in Islam, though Muslims don’t believe he’s the son of God. The Quran shares the story of Jesus’ birth and his ability to perform miracles. There’s a whole chapter devoted to his mother, Mary, the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.

Even so, conservative Muslim scholars largely reject celebrations of Christmas, with varying explanations: Its pagan roots don’t have anything to do with reverence for Jesus, Muslims aren’t supposed to emulate the faiths of others, the holiday is more about consumerism than about Jesus’ teachings and so on.

I hate being ambiguous or vague. ‘Merry Christmas.’ What’s wrong with that?

Sherine El-Abd, a fan of Christmas

The clergy’s stance, however, hasn’t stopped Muslims across the country from joining the throngs of Americans shopping, decorating and cooking this season. Thousands of Muslims will mark Christmas in their own ways, through cobbled-together traditions that typically focus on the secular aspects of the holiday, such as big family meals and Santa Claus.

Under #MuslimChristmas on Instagram, one woman incorporated her hijab into an elf costume, with a caption proclaiming herself “Santa’s first Muslim helper.” Two generations of another Muslim family, the Murads, are pictured striking poses in front of their tree, clad in matching Christmas pajamas. In another, a man poked fun at Muslims feeling left out at Christmas with a photo of himself looking wistfully out the window, waiting in vain for Santa to arrive.

Given the widespread vilification of Islam, Muslims say, other Americans probably have no idea how many Muslims either celebrate Christmas or attend events in solidarity with Christian friends.

Irfana Anwer, 40, of Virginia, said she turned awkward Christmas-related moments into a chance for dialogue. Case in point: when co-workers wish everyone in the office a merry Christmas but aren’t quite sure what to say to her.

“There’s a pause when they see me and they say, ‘Happy holidays,’ ” Anwer said. “I say, ‘No, no, it’s OK to say merry Christmas,’ and we’ll have a conversation about it.”

She said Muslims should feel secure enough to guide those talks. Real interfaith work, she explained, “is where you can pick up the religion of another and engage with it as if it’s your own without feeling like you’re losing anything of your own.”

Some interfaith initiatives are spending the Christmas holiday organizing against Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policy ideas. Politically charged Christmas memes are passed among activist circles: A popular one reads “Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee.”

In Houston, this is the seventh year of Jewish/Muslim Christmas, a project led by two friends, Rabbi Steve Gross and Muslim activist Shariq Abdul Ghani. It’s typically private, with about 75 guests engaged in group discussions, followed by a shared meal from a Pakistani or Polish restaurant.

My Christian friends and Jewish friends always wish me well on my holidays, so how am I a good Muslim if I don’t wish them well on their holidays?

Omar Kurdi, Cleveland resident

The night Trump won, the rabbi and the Muslim exchanged concerned text messages and decided immediately to turbocharge this year’s gathering, which takes place on Christmas Day. They picked the theme “Dealing with Fear,” opened up the event to the public, invited an extra synagogue and moved it to the site of a major Islamic conference. Speakers are to include survivors of the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide.

“At first we were going to do something more social,” Ghani said. “But the night Trump was elected, we decided to take it up a notch.”

It’s not only the United States where Muslims view Christmas as a time to challenge stereotypes held by those who see Islam only through its extremist fringe. In the United Kingdom, two Muslim-owned kebab shops won attention for offering free meals for the homeless or the elderly on Christmas Day. Also in Britain, the star baker Nadiya Hussain, a Muslim woman, is cooking dinner as part of BBC Radio 2’s Christmas lineup.

In Baghdad, a Muslim businessman erected a giant Christmas tree in the heart of the city as a gesture of solidarity with Iraq’s beleaguered, dwindling Christian population. And in a viral video from the Palestinian city of Ramallah, West Bank, Muslim spectators clap and laugh as a Santa Claus flash mob grooves to “Jingle Bells” before breaking into a traditional dabke dance.

For all the public displays of Muslim affection toward Christmas, however, there are holdouts who strongly believe that Christmas belongs to Christians only – and they don’t mind publicly lecturing Muslims who celebrate, as Ohio resident Omar Kurdi found out this month.

Kurdi grew up in Jordan with fond memories of witnessing the Christian minority’s “breathtaking” midnight Mass. One year, his class wrote a Christmas play and he was the lead in the mostly Muslim production, singing “Silent Night.” Now living in Cleveland, Kurdi just bought his first Christmas tree, a small fake one intended as décor for a gathering. He proudly posted a picture of it on Snapchat.

One of the first responses came from a fellow Muslim, an acquaintance: “kafir.” Unbeliever.

“I’m like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Kurdi said. “In Arabic, we say, ‘God knows our intentions best,’ so if my intention is to celebrate the color and the lights, the fun and the cheer, who are you to tell me what’s wrong or right?”

Kurdi immediately blocked the man. Still furious, Kurdi opened up Facebook and lashed out at the Muslim scolds who lecture against trees and tinsel. “SAVE ME YOUR BS,” he wrote.

In a stand of solidarity against a piece of anti-Muslim hate mail recently received at the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, about 150 people of all faiths gathered at the center Friday afternoon to attend a special prayer service.

Kurdi added that it was “simply humanity” for people of different faiths to share in the joy of different holidays. He told the critics to stop judging and signed off as “Proud Muslim owner of a Christmas Tree.” His comments section became a battleground, but Kurdi has no regrets.

“I just wanted to put it out there because I know there are others who are like me,” he said. “For me, it’s also a matter of respect. My Christian friends and Jewish friends always wish me well on my holidays, so how am I a good Muslim if I don’t wish them well on their holidays?”

While some mixed-faith families enjoy double celebrations, Christmas and Eid, that’s not always the case, especially when both sides are religious. It took years for Alana Raybon, a Tennessee schoolteacher who converted to Islam, and her mother, author Patricia Raybon, to heal after their split in faith.

They co-wrote a book, “Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.” It was heralded for an honest discussion of the pain of a family’s religious rupture, and yet Christmas was still too raw a topic to settle, Alana Raybon said. She and her husband have decided that celebrating runs afoul of the Muslim beliefs they’re trying to instill in their children; her mother and in-laws still mail gifts every December.

“Christmas was one of the unresolved issues we hadn’t worked out,” said Raybon, 36, who was on a road trip to spend the holidays at an Islamic conference. “We figured out how to interact with each other without being uncomfortable, but that was an area that was so dear to my mother’s heart that it was an awkward situation. We’re still kind of working through it.”

More than two dozen people responded to a reporter’s query on Facebook: Are you a Muslim who celebrates Christmas? Two replied with photos of their Christmas trees, one posted a picture of his son on Santa’s lap and another shared a video of a Muslim girls choir performing Christmas carols at a church in Lebanon.

“Heck yeah we do,” one commenter wrote, before adding, “also Jewish holidays.” Another man recalled how his family in Kuwait always had a plastic Christmas tree but “we used to hide it so we wouldn’t upset our religious relatives hahaha.”

One of those who answered was Sherine El-Abd, 70, a lifelong fan of Christmas whose New Jersey home turns into a hub for family every season. She puts up a tree, cooks an Egyptian feast and wishes her neighbors Merry Christmas – not “happy holidays.”

“I hate being ambiguous or vague,” she said in a phone interview. “ ‘Merry Christmas.’ What’s wrong with that?”

When her daughter was 5, El-Abd said, a Christian classmate teased her, saying he’d get presents on Christmas and she wouldn’t.

“And she said, ‘Yes, I will!’ ” El-Abd recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘Why? Are you Christian?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m American.’ ”

This year, El-Abd said, Christmas can’t come soon enough. The nation is politically polarized and news channels show nonstop suffering around the world. El-Abd is ready for a dose of holiday cheer.

“There’s a slogan around Christmastime: ‘peace on earth,’ ” she said. “I hope that we find it, because it’s been a very rough year.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam