Ramadan, a month of fasting and spiritual purification, began on 23 March for many Muslims in the UK and around the world. This year, though, Muslims in London celebrated the start of the month with a first-of-its-kind display of lights in Piccadilly Circus.
On one level, in a country plagued with Islamophobia, the Ramadan lights in London are a welcome bit of positive news. However, it’s still important to carefully consider what this gesture means in the grand scheme of things – in a social sense as well as a spiritual one.
Sure, some might argue that it’s important to celebrate the wins. My main reservation, however, is whether a fancy display of lights inspired by Christmas decorations is a win at all.
Ramadan lights: ‘Celebrating diversity’
London mayor Sadiq Khan switched on the lights in a formal ceremony on Tuesday 21 March. The following day, Khan tweeted:
People like Khan are hailing the lights as a landmark moment in history. But while these lights are an opportunity to ‘celebrate diversity’, it begs the question: are they anything more than that?
There is indeed a fundamental difference between ‘diversity and inclusion’ work and anti-racism. The former, in effect, allows institutions to appear to be doing something about racism without actually addressing it in a way that might cause those in power any great discomfort. Surface-level diversity or representation doesn’t necessarily, or maybe even frequently, lead to greater social justice.
Ultimately, the lights are a gesture that is both pretty and politically safe. While they may rile up some overtly Islamophobic people, they don’t punch up in any way. They don’t call for accountability from a ruling party that’s institutionally Islamophobic.
Their depoliticised nature is the very reason for their appeal. Meanwhile, if Muslims were to put up banners calling on the UK to stop enabling war in Yemen in the same Piccadilly square, the reaction would be very different. That’s despite the fact that this would be a valid expression of their faith, and more aligned with the spirit of Ramadan.
The magic of Ramadan
Middle East Eye shared its coverage on Twitter of the Ramadan lights coming on. This included interviews with some of the initiative’s main organisers and funders:
One prominent theme from the organisers and supporters seems to be that these lights are an opportunity to ‘bring the magic of Ramadan’ to Muslims in London. Having grown up in Dubai, and witnessing these lights year on year, maybe I’ve become desensitised to this interpretation of the magic Ramadan has to offer.
For decades, gulf countries have put up extravagant light displays during Ramadan. I’m old enough now to realise that these aren’t an expression of faith so much as an ostentatious display of wealth. You won’t find anything at the same level in poor Muslim countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. – and it’s not a reflection of their appreciation for Ramadan.
Growing closer to God
That’s not to say that I don’t miss observing Ramadan in a Muslim country. I miss the calls to prayer resounding from multiple mosques in the same vicinity at iftar time. I miss the accommodations in schools and workplaces for people who were fasting. The core aim for Muslims during Ramadan should be to grow closer to God. We strive to re-orient our lives towards a centring of God in everything we do, and observing it in a Muslim country made this that much easier.
But that doesn’t require ‘spectacular displays’ or any sort of outward performance. Yes, there is space for joy as a community in the shared observance of Ramadan, especially as the world turns increasingly dark. But we must also be mindful of what our expressions of joy reflect (Christmas lights and oil wealth?) as well as who they might exclude.
On the bright side, the lights in Piccadilly Circus will hopefully ensure people stop calling it ‘Ramadam’ henceforth. And they show a space for British Muslims in a way that possibly hasn’t been seen before. If we want to eliminate British Islamophobia at the highest levels, though, we still have a long, long way to go.
.Featured image via Middle East Eye/Twitter