An American Muslim Thanksgiving Journey

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This year will be the first time my family officially participates in the tradition of Thanksgiving, despite having lived in the United States for the last 15 years. That’s not to say I’m against American holidays, but being an American Muslim often implies conflict in terms of national and international observances. So while other immigrants are quick to participate in the celebrations of their adopted countries, American Muslims like me, who identify strongly with their religion, find it difficult to tread this path lightly. Here’s why.

When I arrived in the United States, I didn’t know anyone except a very new husband. In those early years Thanksgiving was more of a vacation than anything else, because I had no family close by to celebrate it with. There were some in-laws but nobody in Florida where we lived, and the thought of driving hundreds of miles to eat together was a bit ludicrous to me. Not being familiar with the concept of Thanksgiving, and not big fans of turkey, it was easy to ignore the holiday each year it arrived. I soon found out that I wasn’t alone. Many immigrants, Muslim or not, have similar experiences – being alone in a new place at a time meant for family and meals is not the best atmosphere for celebrating anything. As the years passed and I moved closer to my in-laws in Texas, the holiday remained at the peripherals of my consciousness, still more about a long vacation than a day of celebration. Even when the extended family did get together to eat a meal on Thanksgiving Day, it was mainly because everyone had time off from work and no restaurants were open.
But as parents are fond of saying, and as I am discovering slowly for myself, everything changes when you have kids. The light bulb went on for me earlier this fall, when my children and I were discussing the upcoming school holidays in November and December. Having just fought a major battle with my four-year-old daughter on Halloween because she wanted a costume and candy, I was ready for another one before Christmas when she would ask about Santa Claus. I overheard my daughter ask my son, older by three years, what Thanksgiving was, and he replied “Don’t ask mom about Thanksgiving. We’re Muslims, we don’t celebrate it.”
I was horrified to hear this innocent assumption made by my firstborn. He had become so used to not participating in holidays his friends were excited about, that he had assumed Thanksgiving would be no different. This got me thinking; I hurried to explain to him that while we as Muslims don’t celebrate some “other” holidays, Thanksgiving isn’t one of them because we are in fact encouraged by our faith and culture to give thanks to people and to God. It goes without saying that my kids were overjoyed; and that’s why for the first time in fifteen years I will join the American experience of having my in-laws over – not just for any dinner but a Thanksgiving dinner. Every wife and mother knows the difference.
This may seem like a personal story, but the fact is that many American Muslims are having similar conversations with their children or even with themselves this week. Religious leaders are struggling to affirm or deny the merits of the holiday, some insisting that Muslims should not celebrate any non-Muslim holiday and others encouraging immigrants to bond with their new countrymen and eat halal turkey. Some American Muslims wonder why it’s important to allocate one day out of the entire year to give thanks when we do so every time we pray. Others feel strongly conflicted at the thought of celebrating a holiday that is in itself associated with non-Islamic values such as genocide and violence. While it’s easier to distance ourselves from other American celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween, even Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving with its salute to gratitude, family and food is more challenging. Who wants to deny themselves any of these three important aspects of good life, indications of a merciful and benevolent God? So while it may seem trivial to the rest of the country, participating in Thanksgiving or abstaining in the festivities is a serious reflection in the Muslim community each year.
For me, the coin dropped thanks to my children. I realized that although it may be easy for me and my husband to ignore American holidays because we have essentially an immigrant frame of reference, it’s extremely challenging for my first generation American children to define themselves in the same way. In school every celebration is suspect, and they come home constantly inquiring whether it’s okay to do what others are doing. For children who are born American, speak better English than their parents, know more about popular culture and feel slightly embarrassed at their parent’s dress or accent when they’re together in public, not being able to celebrate holidays with their friends is just another nail in the coffin.
To be clear, I’m not the only parent fearful of the future of her American Muslim offspring. The challenges faced by our children as they struggle to assimilate in American culture imply a very real danger of becoming conflicted and confused as they grow older. But we can all rally behind a holiday like Thanksgiving. After all, it’s a perfect blend of national, cultural and religious values: we come together as a nation, but bring our own unique foods and practices to the celebration, and we stand united with our common religious teachings of gratitude and service. Muslim leaders are starting to recognize this, and many mosques and Islamic centers now hold Thanksgiving feasts, serve the hungryor participate in interfaith Thanksgiving events to show their own congregations as well as outsiders that they have nothing against this American holiday.
So this year, I have decided to fully participate in Thanksgiving. Instead of merely getting together for dinner on Thursday, I will invite everyone for a Thanksgiving meal. We’ll do it Pakistani style since old habits die hard, but along with the barbecued chicken tikka and naan we’ll all offer a few words of thanks, because I want to prove to my kids that we can be American and Muslim at the same time. Growing up in this consumer-driven land of plenty, where at four and seven they have more possessions than my entire family did growing up, I think articulating some thoughts of gratitude will be healthy. It may be good for the adults at the table as well. American Muslims have a lot to be thankful for – freedom, civil liberties, a great life – and I for one am looking forward to my first official Thanksgiving.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.