For Pete’s sake, let’s stop the squabbling and enjoy some Christmas cheer

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Santa and I go back a long way. My mother has pictures of me as a little girl looking up adoringly at Santa Claus as he distributed presents and good cheer at a once-iconic hotel in Karachi. The love affair has endured. Recently, however, it’s turned one-sided.

Much to my regret, those who claim to “own” Santa/Father Christmas/St Nicholas want to keep him exclusively for themselves. No sharing allowed. Christmas fun and traditions are only for Christians, not the other riff raff that are part of multicultural Europe.

For proof, look no further than the recent furore in Britain over an “anti-Christian” advertisement by a British supermarket chain Tesco, showing a Muslim family sharing a Christmas meal with friends. In my experience it’s something many Muslims do, out of respect for their friends and because it’s fun. My multi-cultural family loves it.

Certainly ISIS and their hard-line friends and sponsors across the world frown at Santa and target Christians and other minorities – and Muslims – as they congregate for prayer. But they don’t represent the majority of Muslims. Christmas trees and lights are still to be found in Indonesia, Pakistan and some other Muslim majority countries.

So why all the angst, the angry denunciations and, in some cases, the violent confrontations?

For many, however, the Tesco advertisement was an outrage. Even as the supermarket stood firm on its inclusive ad – which also showed a black family, a same-sex couple and a single parent family enjoying supper ‒ the rants on social media were reminiscent of the way in which the now-discredited Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly once raged again the alleged “War on Christmas” being waged by Muslims.

And then there is the even more exclusive and fanatic fight in the Netherlands to cling on to Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, Sinter Klaas’s little “black” helper‒ traditionally played by a white person with a blackened face, red lips, golden loop earrings and a curly afro wig ‒ despite the discomfort and unease this portrayal causes the country’s black citizens.

So why all the angst, the angry denunciations and, in some cases, the violent confrontations?

The simple answer is that people don’t want to tamper with tradition or mess around with cultural identity. Europe is white and Christian – and should stay that way. If not, before you know it, it will be “Shariah for all”. Let’s call it the “Geert Wilders/Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban doctrine” of exclusion and discrimination.

So far, so simplistic. The only problem is that life in the 21st Century is a tad more complicated. People don’t just see life in black and white. Identities are fluid and changing. Yes, Mr Orban, one can be black, secular, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and European.

Also, of course, change is complicated and can be difficult. Diversity is a fact of life but it does bring challenges of living and working together. “Unity in diversity” may be the EU motto but its translation into reality – especially when that reality includes other religions and “people of colour” – isn’t easy.

True, not everyone clinging to a white Christmas or Black Pete is a racist or an Islamophobe. Many are genuinely worried about seeing their old way of life fall by the way side. Many Dutch people tell me that they genuinely did not realise that “Black Pete” could be viewed as racist. Others, including the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, are angry over a United Nations recommendation that the Netherlands “actively promote the elimination” of the racist character and his inclusion in festivals.

Lost in the brouhaha is the fact that black and brown Dutch children are confronted with Black Pete insults, racist bullying and negative stereotypes. And that, as highlighted by a new report on immigrants and minorities by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (*), too many Europeans feel discriminated against because of their ethnic or immigrant background, with almost half of those interviewed saying that they believed that discrimination – when looking for work, housing, in shops or on public transport ‒ was due to their skin colour or physical appearance.

One powerful lesson from 2017 is that we can stand up to the racists and bigots

Far Right groups have jumped on Black Pete with glee. The Dutch Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders wants a bill that would enshrine Black Pete in law as a way to “protect” Dutch culture. And the Netherlands is not alone of course. The much-respected Professor Mary Beard says she faced a “torrent of insults” for pointing out that Britain under the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse. More recently, of course, Britain’s Prince Harry has had to put up with references to the “rich and exotic DNA” of his mixed-race fiancée Meghan Markle.

If this wasn’t depressing enough, US President Donald Trump has been retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the Far Right group Britain First, thereby joining a global network of anti-Muslim activists who are using Twitter bots, fake news and image manipulation to stir up anti-Islam hate.

The loony racists, however, can only succeed in stirring up hatred if we allow them to do so. One powerful lesson from 2017 is that we can stand up to the racists and bigots in our capacity as individuals, as communities and through joint actions. There are more people supporting an open and tolerant Europe through campaigns such as #StopFundingHate than there are those deliberately inciting hatred and the promotion of an inward and closed Europe.

As Freddie Mercury, the legendary superstar, sang all those years ago, “my friends, it’s been a long, hard year… but now it’s Christmas, thank God it’s Christmas”, a time for peace and love.

Christmas may still be some weeks away, but it really is time to stop squabbling and enjoy some good cheer instead.



*Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights will be released on December 6 at the “Reality Bites: Experiences of Immigrants and Minorities in the EU” launch conference at the EU Council (Justus Lipsius) Press Room

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