My Muslim Valentine
  Published in Chicago Tribune, February 18, 2007

Last year, on a trip to Pakistan, I found myself in the city of Lahore on the evening of Valentine's Day.

The night was alive. Street vendors were selling heart-shaped balloons and roses in singles and dozens. Many of the shops were having Valentine's Day sales. Restaurants were announcing Valentine's Day parties.

The Gymkhana Club, where my family was staying, had a Valentine's Day dinner where "enthusiastic couples" could win "fabulous prizes."

The extent and level of the Valentine's Day celebration I witnessed that evening knocked my socks off! The celebrations were so huge they were like the Islamic holiday Eid. Many non-Western countries now have similar celebrations.

One reason for Valentine's Day's popularity outside the U.S. might be that as a romantic tradition it has universal appeal. Another is that it's good for business. Restaurants and shops that sell flowers, candy, perfume and other gifts do booming trade on Valentine's Day.

Historically, it's not unusual for countries to export their cultural traditions. What is remarkable is how fast Valentine's Day has gained popularity and how large it has grown. But the inverse does not seem to be occurring. There are few examples of Eastern, Middle Eastern or Asian holiday or cultural traditions that have become part of popular Western culture.

This one-way gradient between cultures is an anomaly. In the past, when traditions rubbed shoulders, the circulation of ideas went both ways. As Islam took root in South Asia, it was influenced by the already-present Hindu customs and practices; likewise, most historians agree, it had an influence on Hindu culture and spawned monotheistic entities, such as the bhakti movement and the Sikh religion.

The overwhelmingly one-sided nature of current cultural exchange, of which Valentine's Day is only one example, sparks fear among conservatives in those societies that their traditions are rapidly and irreversibly losing to American culture.

That fear has led to street demonstrations in India and Pakistan, where some consider Valentine's Day an affront to local culture. In Thailand, police go out on the holiday to curb inappropriate displays of public affection. These reactions echo complaints by the French that their way of life is being swallowed by American pop culture.

Much is common among different cultures, and much may be shared. In Muslim and American cultures, shared traditions include goodwill, kindness and forgiveness.

And there is a great deal in American culture that Muslims may learn from. The American values of freedom of expression, higher education, rule of law and democratic governance should be emulated.

Similarly, the U.S. may learn from many Islamic values. The leitmotif of Muslim culture is hospitality. Visitors find Muslims incredibly hospitable; near strangers will take time out to be your hosts and invite you to dinner or take you shopping.

Closely linked is a culture of respect. People invariably give precedence to women in public places, get up to give them their seats and allow them to go to the front of the line. A close bond exists among family members: parents, children and even distant relatives. Families are more willing to take care of one another, especially children caring for elderly parents. Consequently, nursing homes for the elderly are virtually non-existent.

Cultural exchange is natural and inevitable, but the one-sided flow of culture is unhealthy because it privileges one culture over the other; a more balanced exchange is needed. We can accomplish this through exchange programs and learning about each other's cultures with humility and humor.

Intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee for peace and an antidote to the clash of civilizations. It could make Valentine's Day in Lahore an occasion to celebrate and not an event to fret over.

(Copyright 2007 by the Chicago Tribune)

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Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the Chicago based Muslim American think tank.

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