[This title and text are slightly altered from what The New York Sun published]
Last Saturday, a young man in Karachi, Pakistan, greeted a young woman in a university classroom with "Happy Valentine's Day."
In most of the world these would be innocuous good wishes; in Karachi, they were fighting words. Other students objected to them, leading to a fist fight and the injury of two students.
As this incident suggests, in some cultures Valentine's Day prompts controversy.
One negative view of Valentine's Day.
Saudi authorities are hardly alone in their fear and loathing of a fourteenth-century holiday named after the patron saint of lovers. In Iran last year, the police ordered shops to remove heart-and-flower decorations, not to speak of images of couples embracing.
In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an Islamist organization, calls for a ban on Valentine's Day. One of its leaders dismisses it as "a shameful day" when Westerners "are just fulfilling and satisfying their sex thirst."
In Malaysia, a mufti thunders against the day: "We Muslims do not need such a culture or practice, which is clearly against the teachings of our religion [which are] complete, perfect and credible."
In the United States, Imam Jamal Said of the Bridgeview mosque outside Chicago condemns Valentine's Day (as well as Thanksgiving) as a non-Islamic holiday.
Nor do you have to be Muslim to hate Valentine's Day. In India, a leader of the radical Hindu group Shiv Sena has condemned the holiday as "nothing but a Western onslaught on India's culture to attract youth for commercial purposes." Shiv Sena members followed up by stealing Valentine's Day cards from a shop in central Bombay which they ceremonially burned in a bonfire. They also harassed hand-holding couples and threatened to shave the heads and beat young lovers who exchanged Valentine's Day cards and gifts.
Spinneys is a Middle East-wide grocery chain; this ad has the banana telling the eggplant in the Lebanese dialect of Arabic, "I completely fell for you."
Though brand new in the Middle East and South Asia, the holiday has rapidly taken on the trappings of custom. "We have celebrated Valentine's Day every year," recounts a 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman. "We would wish each other a happy Valentine's Day on the phone at midnight. Later we used to exchange gifts."
The authorities might condemn this day of romance, but it appeals to lovers young and old, who happily carry out its newly-minted rituals.
"Happy Love Day."
Valentine's Day is a light-hearted matter, but efforts to repress it symbolize an intent to make war on modernity. In this way, the generational and cultural struggle over heart-shaped cards points to a battle now underway for the soul of Islam. Can the religious authorities suppress what has come to be known as "Lover's Day"? Must Muslim governments double as nanny states, getting in the way of their youth's fun? Or do they have the confidence to allow families and peer pressure to keep this holiday within acceptable bounds?
Much hangs in the balance.
Feb. 18, 2004 update: "Valentine's Day in Mecca" looks more closely at developments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Feb. 14, 2005 update: "Valentine's Day in the Muslim World" looks at developments everywhere else in the Muslim world.