Bring on the turkey - Irfan Husain - December 1, 2010

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Last Friday, I helped my son cook a turkey in Karachi. As I was in Sri Lanka at the time, the guidance was by email, text messages and phone calls. But by the end of the evening, Shakir had a lovely, golden brown, 8-kilo turkey ready (and emailed me a photo to prove it). His wife Sheila, a very good cook, had no need for instructions in cooking her bird. So they had lots of turkey to serve their friends at their Thanksgiving party.

Frankly, I think the fowl is hugely overrated as its meat is quite bland. But a large, properly cooked turkey is very festive, and its arrival at the table causes a stir, even among those with a jaded palate. I use the traditional, slow-cooking method which requires a lot of time and attention, but at the end of the process, I have a very tender, moist bird. In particular, good gravy needs care and concentration. Having cooked more turkeys than I care to remember, I have got quite good at it.

This culinary preamble is not the opening of a column about cooking, but about Thanksgiving, and about holidays in general. Americans of all faiths mark the fourth Thursday of November with Thanksgiving, a day that commemorates the feast provided to the early colonists by Native Americans, and is modelled after European harvest festivals.

This is an entirely secular holiday, with no religious overtones. In fact, my (Muslim) daughter-in-law learned to cook a turkey from her (Muslim) mother while growing up in America. Given the nature of the holiday, I was a bit taken aback to read a denunciation of Thanksgiving on the New Trends website. A US-based webzine, this site reliably contains extremist views, but also some valid critiques of American policies.

In an article called Thoughts on ‘Thanksgiving’, Nadrat Siddique writes: “As Muslims, we are often in the difficult position of having to respond to a greeting such as ‘Happy Thanksgiving’. Some Muslims feel it necessary to return the greeting out of concern for adaab (Islamic etiquette) … But words are powerful … and they can help perpetuate a myth … in which Native people and White settlers feasted and cavorted in friendship. But Islam teaches us to stand with the oppressed, against the oppressor. As aware Muslims we should have to option to politely deflect the greeting, then briefly explain why we do not celebrate it. It is an opportunity to educate people, and do some myth busting.”

How exactly do you ‘politely deflect’ a greeting from a friend or a neighbour? Do you say something like “Sorry, but I can’t share your holiday because it commemorates the genocide of Native Americans, and centuries of oppression?”

But surely Ms Siddique should not be in America at all if she feels so strongly about the Native Indians, and what was done to them. If she’s advising her fellow-Muslims in the United States to distance themselves from the holiday celebrated by the vast majority, should she not take this protest to its logical conclusion, and suggest they leave the land of oppressors?

Don’t get me wrong: I feel strongly about the plight of Native people in all the vast territories colonised by Europeans.

White colonists have an appalling record of virtual genocide in the lands and continents they conquered since the 16th century. Indeed, the history of every country in the Americas, as well as of Australia, is written in blood.

However, this fact does not give Muslims the right to preach to Americans or anybody else, given their own track record.

When Muslim Afghan and Central Asian tribes raided across North India over centuries and established kingdoms, they slew and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Hindus and demolished countless temples. When the Arab armies swept into Persia and the Near East, they killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. And the Ottoman conquest and colonisation of the Balkans was hardly a bloodless affair.

These are some of the glories of our past whose passing so many Muslims mourn today. So we can hardly preach to others before we confront our own past. Indeed, Muslims continue to slaughter each other today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with happy abandon.

It is the sanctimony inherent in Ms Siddique’s article that I find so annoying. Given that so many Muslims in America are having trouble dealing with the rise of Islamophobia there, the last thing they need is a lecture urging them to move further away from the mainstream.

Of course everybody is free to hold their own opinions, but choices have consequences: people like Ms Siddique should not then complain of not being accepted as Americans if they deliberately spurn American traditions.

Other Muslims choose to stay away from non-Muslim religious celebrations like Christmas, Holi or Hannukah. Frankly, I am puzzled to see Muslims refusing to participate in anybody else’s festivals: surely celebrating a non-Muslim holy day should not weaken their own faith.

This entire concept of building a wall between Muslims and non-Muslims is badly flawed, and only creates misunderstandings. My parents used to tell us how their Hindu and Sikh neighbours came to their home on Eid in Delhi before Partition, and how they attended Holi and Divali celebrations with their friends. Luckily, their lesson of humanity and tolerance has been passed on to their grandchildren.

In a world full of tensions and strife, we should be using joyous occasions as opportunities to heal wounds and build bridges to other communities. Instead, religious bigots of all stripes are urging a greater distance between people and faiths.

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become a unifying theme for the many people with different origins and backgrounds who today make up the mosaic that is America. Most are only dimly aware of the origins of the holiday. To use it to make political points is an exercise in pure sanctimony. Muslims who have chosen to make the US their home would be better advised to join their neighbours on this happy occasion rather than to ‘politely deflect’ a friendly greeting.

For my part, much as I find turkeys a bit boring, I am gearing to cook one at Christmas.

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