[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

[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.

The Saudi religious authorities issued an edict indicating that "There are only two holidays in Islam - Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha - and any other holidays ... are inventions which Muslims are banned from" and calls again on the kingdom's subjects to "shun" Valentine's Day this year. In keeping with this prohibition, the Saudi religious police monitor stores selling roses and other gifts associated with the holiday. They have even arrested women for wearing red on 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.

This rage responds to the soaring popularity of the holiday in majority-Muslim countries and India. Restaurants promote Valentine's Day dinners, hotels offer balls, and stores advertise flowers, chocolates, and other gifts. Florists sell bounties of roses and barbers cut hearts into men's head hair. Television shows organize love-letter competitions. Newspapers publish amorous messages and offer advice on the best places to tryst (naming cafes, roofs, parks, and rickshaw taxis). Internet dating services enjoy a surge in usage, phone companies log added long-distance calling.

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.

In some cases, particularly in Iran, heavy-handed government action serves to alienate the population. "For weeks, I've been waiting for Valentine's Day to offer my boyfriend a gift of love and affection," says a 19-year old girl. "The crackdown only strengthens my position in rejecting the hard-line clerical rule." To other Iranians, the prohibition confirms how little the regime understands its population. One shopper, buying a red heart-and-rose card for her son-in-law, dismissed it as "only rigidity and cultural backwardness. Through the crackdown, they only buy people's greater hatred and enmity."

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.