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Jul 28, 2014

Muted celebrations for the end (or is it?) of Ramadan

While the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr is usually marked by parties, this year Australian Muslims will also observe it with prayers for Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

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Today is Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Probably. Depending who you listen to.

Eid wouldn’t be Eid without the traditional argument about whether or not the moon could be seen with the naked eye and whether or not that matters, in an age of astronomical calculations and telescopes. But of course, it continues to matter a great deal — which is why some of us are stuffing our faces with baklava and gulab jamun today while others are still counting the minutes until sunset.

The time-honoured fracas over moon-sighting provides a bit of light relief to end what has been a Ramadan of grim tidings — from Iraq, from Syria, from Gaza. Celebrations in Australia are muted by the rising death tolls, by the graphic photographs of dead Palestinian children.

This bad news, however, is unlikely to slow the mainstreaming of Ramadan in Australia — not because of multiculturalism but because of commercialism. Ramadan provides a month-long opportunity of marketing to Australian Muslims. Of course the primary message of Ramadan is one of fasting, abstinence, and charity — but it is also a month-long season of indulgence: nothing to eat during daylight hours, followed by celebratory meals every evening to break the fast. More and more corporations, government departments and embassies have begun holding iftars –the evening banquet during Ramadan — for Muslim clients and customers.

There are, however, hazards to Ramadan marketing. For anti-Muslim racists, it’s a symbol of capitulation to the stealthy forces of jihad. So far, at least, attempts to mobilise a crusade against this have been tepid. A campaign against Woolworths by the Party of Freedom (who are they?) for posting Happy Ramadan signs in some of its stores failed to get off the ground, despite an initial round of tabloid interest. The campaign climaxed last Saturday when a total of eight anti-Muslim protesters were heavily outnumbered by anti-racism activists outside a Woolworths store in Marrickville.

The empty tables at Mike Baird’s iftar proved a more difficult situation. Many Muslim invitees stayed away from the event in protest of recent comments by NSW community relations chair Vic Alhadeff, chief of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, that Israel would do “whatever is needed to defend its citizens. All options are on the table.” As the death toll rises and the price of “whatever is needed” becomes more and more apparent, it was untenable for Muslims to break their fast alongside Alhadeff and, ultimately, untenable for him to remain as community relations chair. He has now stepped down from this position.

In the coming week, Muslims in Australia will attend prayers, exchange gifts, eat sweets and hold parties — but the bloodshed overseas will never be far from anyone’s mind.

*Shakira Hussein is undertaking a McKenzie postdoctoral fellowship on Muslim women, gender violence and racism at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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