What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.
These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.
The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.
As a Muslim from a Christian family, Christmas has historically been complicated for me. Converting to Islam as a teenager, part of what I wanted from my religion was a new identity; the differences between Christians and Muslims held more value for me than the similarities, so I abstained from my family’s Christmas celebration. The boundaries between religions were crucial to my personal reinvention. I believed that there was no way of interpreting Christmas other than through the theological lens in which Christ was the son of God; because this violated my understanding of Islamic monotheism, tawhid, I had to stay as far from Christmas as I could.
In later years, I gave up on my Christmas boycott. I now join in my family’s annual party—with a discreet trip to Denny’s first, because everything at the family dinner has pork in it and Denny’s is the only thing open—and apparently celebrate the birth of someone’s savior, but not mine. I’m now confident enough in my own Muslim selfhood to not let it be won or lost by a holiday. Anyway, the boundaries don’t always mean to me what they once did; but for numerous Muslims with Christian families, Christmas can be a difficult choice. Besides the theological question of whether celebrating Christmas means that you join in the worship of a human as God, there’s the matter of what constitutes proper Muslim behavior. Celebrating Christmas could be classified as bida’a, “innovation,” the corruption of an Islam that’s imagined to be otherwise pure and pristine through mixture with the practices of other communities.
For pro-Christmas Muslims, the esteemed place of Jesus in Islam might offer a rational defense for sharing in a Christian holiday; the Qur’an not only recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but also supports the story of his miraculous birth from a virgin mother. Some Muslims might take part in their families’ Christmas celebrations with the intention to honor Jesus as a Muslim prophet. This can even connect to Muslim traditions regarding Muhammad. Not all Muslims believe that it is appropriate to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, but those who do might consider the celebration of other prophets’ birthdays as well.
There’s also the well-worn “children of Abraham” narrative, in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all said to share in a common heritage and should therefore see each other as spiritual cousins. This isn’t exactly wrong—certainly, one can derive such a position from the text of the Qur’an—but it’s limited, because constructing an Abrahamic family just performs a new set of exclusions. Bringing Abraham into this is only the “tolerant” option if we assume the entirety of the human race to be comprised of believing Abrahamic monotheists. The “children of Abraham” approach doesn’t help when it comes to my friends and family outside of the Abrahamic tent, both those who grew up as Muslims, Christians, or Jews but no longer identify themselves as such, and those who claim other traditions. Quoting a verse of the Qur’an that praises all who “believe in the last day and do what is right,” whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, isn’t going to be the answer every time.