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
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
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
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
(Copyright 2007 by the Chicago Tribune)
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the
Chicago based Muslim American think tank.
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