Over the last month or so, the world’s one billion Muslims celebrated the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to dusk, or providing excuses as to why they couldn't. On Ramadan’s last day, believers celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the lowercase-h hunger games. The holiday is a party. The haves give money to the have-nots, people throw lavish feasts for friends and family, and everyone revels in the return to normalcy.
Eid was yesterday. I learned this on the subway yesterday morning, when a stranger took a look at me (full disclosure: I'm brown) and said "Eid Mubarak," the standard felicitation, which means "happy Eid." I grew up in a secular family, and I had no idea that yesterday was Eid. When I checked Facebook, I found that many of my Facebook friends had echoed the commuter’s well-wishes in their statuses. A few of them even went to the trouble of writing in Arabic. I even had coworkers wish me an "Eid Mubarak," and then ask why I wasn’t home with my family.
I could write about how it’s insensitive for folks like the commuter and my coworkers to assume, based on my skin color and last name, that I’m a pious Muslim, and how it's not any better than TSA agents assuming that I’m carrying anthrax in my shoes. I could also write about how, even though the commuter and my coworkers had good intentions, they completely overlooked the possibility that I may be a brown non-Muslim (they exist), or that these very people who gleefully say, "Eid Mubarak" would probably cringe if someone wished them a merry Christmas. Really, there's subject matter here for days. But I think it’s most important to get to the bottom of why white people love wishing the world Eid Mubarak.
(Before I continue, let me just say that I know this phenomenon is not unique to white people. I’m following the example set by Teju Cole and the blog Stuff White People Like, both of which use "white" as a catch-all to describe privileged people of any race who are well-educated and belong to the upper middle class. Let's face it, "stuff white people like" rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than "stuff that privileged of people of any race who are well-educated and belong to the upper middle class like." While there may be a racial component, that’s a discussion we'll need to have another time.)
Many of the Eid greetings in question aren’t directed at specific people. Eid Mubaraks can be found in blast announcements on Facebook, sometimes accompanied by a picture of a mosque or Muslims praying. A colleague to whom I was complaining suggested that this could be great public diplomacy for the United States, complementing the White House's statement on Eid, and those of several embassies. But I hardly think we’re winning hearts and minds through social media. The only people who’d see your Facebook updates or Tweets are your friends (and the NSA).
My theory on why white people love to bring up Eid? Young, educated, cosmopolitan kids play the game of travel one-upmanship, comparing how many countries they've lived in, the number of languages they speak, and how many friends they have in exotic locales. (I'm guilty of it, too. Just last week, I bragged, "I know so many people in Western Europe, I can basically live there for free.") These simple and impersonal Eid Mubaraks do little more than assert one's knowledge of foreign holidays. It’s a perfect way for folks to demonstrate their worldliness and knowledge of foreign cultures, and even the cultural diversity of their friends ("I clearly have so many Muslim friends that Eid deserved its own shout-out"). The political philosopher Stanley Fish called this sort of behavior "boutique multiculturalism," and said that it is characterized by a "superficial or cosmetic relationship to the objects of its affection." If you are not Muslim, but your relationship with Islam runs deep, then why not send individual Muslims greetings and well-wishes? Or you could actually celebrate with your Muslim friends, attending their parties and prayers. If you really want to empathize with them, try fasting for a day or two during Ramadan. If you feel especially moved by the charitable aspect of Eid, donate money.
This phenomenon isn't limited to Eid, but extends to other ethnic holidays. Several of my Hindu friends commented that they notice the same thing during Diwali. I've also seen it on Cinco de Mayo, Día de los Muertos, and Yom Yippur. Strangely, I don't see as much of this behavior on days that are relevant to Americans, like Veterans Day. If you feel the urge to wish people outside of your ethnic group a happy holiday, do so personally, and try to demonstrate some interest in the significance of the holiday and its rituals. You don’t need you to brag about how cosmopolitan you are or send mass emails to your colleagues. We get it. You studied abroad.