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All photos via Mango's 2015 Ramadan lookbook
All photos via Mango's 2015 Ramadan lookbook

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Is Islam's Holiest Month Turning Into a Shopping Holiday?

As a Muslim-American, I don't want to see Ramadan commercialized.

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This month, Spanish retailer Mango released an exclusive collection of maxi dresses and flowy separates to coincide with the start of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. The highly-anticipated line is not the first of its kind.


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Last year, DKNY put out its own chic-yet-modest collection for the Muslim holiday. Although the line was only available in the Middle East, DKNY garnered accolades from Muslims internationally for offering Ramadan-specific trends. At the same time, a Macy's store inside South Coast Plaza, a luxury mall located in politically conservative Orange County, California, hosted its own "Welcome Ramadan" event, complete with a Ramadan decor pop-up shop.

When I was a Muslim-American kid growing up in Southern California in the ‘90s, the celebration of Ramadan was all but invisible outside the walls of my home.

Ramadan 2015, which begins this week, is already shaping up to be different from years past. Just judging from the inbox I reserve for promotional mailing lists, I've seen more awareness of the holiday from all kinds of brands, from apparel to specialty paper companies, than ever before. I've been celebrating Ramadan for over two decades—it wasn't always this way.

When I was a Muslim-American kid growing up in Southern California in the ‘90s, the celebration of Ramadan was all but invisible outside the walls of my home. For thirty days, my family and I would join over one billion Muslims worldwide in abstaining from eating or drinking during daylight hours in an effort to cultivate a greater understanding of the struggles of those less privileged, as well as foster a deeper spiritual connection with God by performing additional prayers, charity and acts of service.

While this mass global holiday went passively unnoticed by basically everyone who was not Muslim, inside my home the signs of Ramadan were undeniable. The sound of laughter at 4 am as my brother cracked jokes in a sleepy delirium as we hastily gulped down food at sahoor, the pre-dawn meal before the start of the day's fast. The smell of samosas crackling in oil in preparation for the breaking of the fast, called iftar. My father's voice reciting from the Quran as he led all of us in prayer. When Eid, the day of feasting that commemorates the end of Ramadan, drew near, my sister and I would decorate the living room walls with Christmas lights and streamers, purchased from an after-holiday sale. After taking a day off from school for Eid, I would return to questions from classmates curious to know if my hands, freshly adorned with celebratory henna, had suddenly developed a mysterious, yet intricate, rash.

This was a pre-9/11 era, where Muslims in America still lived under the radar. Our religious traditions and customs existed solely within our largely insular communities while remaining a mystery to the rest of the population who didn't happen to have a Muslim friend or coworker. And even then, sometimes apathy just let us all coexist in a blissful state of unawareness.

By the numbers, Muslim-Americans are largely educated, young and upwardly-mobile—a dream demographic for anyone really, but especially marketers.

In hindsight, anonymity held a huge advantage for Muslim-Americans compared to the downsides of the time, which included a lack of readily accessible Ramadan-specific décor and Eid greeting cards. Suffice it to say, life under the radar was pretty good. That is, until September 11, 2001, when a harsh media spotlight thrust everything I knew about myself, my community and my beliefs into an ongoing, 24-hour news cycle of scrutiny. Suddenly, benign Ramadan rituals like congregating at the mosque for nightly prayers were cast as a suspect cover for jihadist scheming. As a young adolescent who had grown up with these traditions, this felt like equating the Easter Bunny with an axe murderer. Ramadan was harmless, just like any other holiday that values family, togetherness, and overeating.

But visibility proved a double-edged sword. Although a lot of the media attention on Islam was and continues to be negative, one fact emerges from the noise: that Muslims do indeed exist in America and in growing numbers, no less. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims are expected to be the second-largest religious group in the U.S. by 2050.

While cable news pundits and talking heads have spent many years of airtime warning us of the impending doom of this trend, one sector is just starting to take notice: retailers. Though few, their preliminary efforts have been exciting for Muslim-Americans, like myself, who applaud the effort by brands to align with Ramadan given today's political climate. They signal a possible sea change for the way Muslims are viewed in America. The fact that big corporations are willing to invest in marketing and branding specific to Muslims has to constitute some level of acceptance of us, right?

The thing about corporations, though, is that they rarely do things out of sheer human goodwill. Financial gains are a far greater motivator, and the recent foray into Ramadan marketing could be the next lucrative frontier. As a population, Muslim-Americans have everything going for them. They're as likely as the rest of the country to be in the middle class, the second-largest religious group to go to college, and on average they fall in the 18-39 age bracket.

By the numbers, Muslim-Americans are largely educated, young and upwardly-mobile—a dream demographic for anyone really, but especially marketers.

At its core, Ramadan is about doing more with less. Literally, you're asked to do more good deeds while physically consuming less.

So maybe the motive isn't as noble as I would like, but the result should justify the means, right? As more brands realize what they're missing out on and discover ways to monetize Ramadan, can I live with the possibility of my most sacred holiday going down the over-commercialized path so many other holidays have tread before it?

At its core, Ramadan is about doing more with less. Literally, you're asked to do more good deeds while physically consuming less. It runs on the lunar calendar so it's not tied to a specific season or time of year. Since it's celebrated by a diverse worldwide population, there are few universal Ramadan customs or symbols. Does this pose a challenge to marketers or simply offer a blank canvas of opportunity? In the hands of corporations, would Ramadan be turned into a frenzied 30 days of sahoor doorbusters and extended-hours sales that encourage mass consumerism in the name of finding the perfect Eid gift?

Historically, economic mechanisms have been the catalyst for much social change. International economic sanctions helped end apartheid in South Africa. The Montgomery bus boycott propelled the desegregation of buses during the Civil Rights Movement. In a more recent example, the wedding industry stands to gain $2.5 billion with the nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage, a hefty profit that could help solidify the institution as a social norm. Could capitalism be the answer for the normalization of Islam in America as well?

I honestly don't know what the right answer is here. On one hand, it would be wonderful for the next generation of Muslim-American children not to have to explain what Ramadan is to their classmates because it's already a legitimate part of the American holiday narrative. But on the other hand, will those same kids have to be schooled on the real meaning of Ramadan, which is the betterment of oneself and one's community—not the irresistible appeal of holiday-appropriate merchandise available at the local mall?

It might sound like I'm jumping the gun, but we've seen this before. Remember when Thanksgiving was a day of gratitude and not just the pre-game meal for Black Friday? I'd love to see Ramadan gain the same name recognition as other major holidays. I'd even settle for a Groundhog Day-level of notoriety. But I'm just not sure it's worth the price.

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