The celebration dilema

4th January 1998

. . . continued from page 1

But the festooning won't stop with New York landmarks. Mehdi wants to see the crescent and star from shore to shore. The crescent and star, the first ever to be allowed to be displayed last year alongside the National Christmas tree and the National Hanukkah Menorah on the Ellipse, near the White House, was desecrated by anti-Islam forces. The United States Park Police are investigating and said: "It was a race and religious crime."

What galled the American Muslims most was that it happened while President Clinton was busy advocating and preaching the importance of good race and interfaith relations to prevail.

No damage was done to the Christmas tree and the Menorah, the candles lit for the Hanukkah. Worst, a crude red swastika, similar to those that have been scrawled on mailboxes and street corners throughout downtown Washington in recent years, was painted on the star.

At the 1996 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago a star and crescent flag was on display on the rostrum because the Democrats are savvy to recognize the growing number of Muslim voters throughout the nation. I did not, however, see a similar display at the Republican Party Convention in San Diego.

In the United States today, more and more Americans celebrate Christmas for cultural rather than religious reasons. But for Jews and Christians who are married without either converting, especially those with children, and there are tens of thousands who are in this situation, the last Christmas celebrations was a stressful time. How do you celebrate the Jewish Hanukkah and Christmas simultaneously?

The decision by parents to uphold both Christian and Jewish religious traditions compounded the difficulty. A couple told me: "... the evening it was decided they all prayed according to Judaism and lit the first menorah candle Hanukkah which is celebrated for eight days."

After days of decorating a huge Christmas tree, the Jewish wife, Jessica, said it was difficult for her. Still she endured, adding: "The tree is starkly a Christian symbol!" Her husband, Charles retorted: "Likewise, the menorah is such a Jewish symbol!"

They remained civilized in front of a Muslim, I thought to myself. We all managed to laugh and no more of it was mentioned. They had told their children when they were old enough to know and understand that they belonged to both religions. It was very imperative for them to understand their Christian and Jewish heritage.

So far, according to Jessica, it seemed to work. They would have to choose later which of the two they want to follow or even choose to be non-believers.

This Jessica-Charles arrangement is unacceptable to the orthodox and conservative Jews because it is undermining the strength of Judaism, historically a very much persecuted religion which amazingly has remained in the main quite cohesive. The Jewish religious leaders are worried because according to a survey only a quarter (or slightly more) of all Jews who married outside their faith raised their children Jewish.

A rabbi friend told me: "Abdullah, there are less than a dozen million Jews on this earth and if this goes on (interfaith marriage) we will not have many Jews left in the world!"

Interfaith marriage does tend to confuse offsprings growing up with dual identity, doesn't it? Although my children were mainly raised in England I never did feel any pressure of any kind. None ever asked for gifts on Christmas day but none ever forgot to ask for "Duit Raya" no matter where they were. They are at ease with all civilizations without having to sacrifice theirs nor offend others.

As my march towards the millennium becomes more insistent, so does my awareness of time moving, changing and passing. I was unsurprised to read that Suha, the Christian-born wife of president Yasser Arafat, lit the Christmas tree in Bethelem's Manger Square as a choir sang carols, opening the festivities in the town where Jesus was born.

After carrying out the lighting ceremony, wearing a red dress and holding her two-year daughter, Zahwa, Suha went to a grotto where she prayed.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the
United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )