A row is brewing over the increasingly popular Ramadan night markets, with opinion divided over whether it has over-commercialised the holy month.

What started five years ago in western Sydney as a simple nightly barbecue for Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan, now attracts over a million visitors and is worth tens of millions of dollars annually to the city’s economy. Visitors from around the country flock to the many cultural food stalls, to taste dishes like Knafeh, Lebanese rice pudding and camel burgers. 

Supporters of the night markets contend it has financial and cultural benefits, as well as educating non-Muslims about the culture.

However, others are concerned the markets are not representative enough of the devotional aspects of Ramadan.

Lakemba Mosque Imam, Sheikh Jamal-Ud-Din El-Kiki told Central News: “On the one hand people outside of western Sydney can be familiar with Muslim cultures. But, you know there are mosques on Haldon Street and unfortunately instead of seeing Muslims in the mosque we’re seeing them on the street with camel burgers.”

He said with ever-increasing crowds Islamic traditional customs were being challenged with excessive littering, non-compliance to Islamic dress codes, and at times an inappropriate level of socialising between genders. The elderly community had also complained of loud noise, which often continued late into the night.

He added: “There’s nothing uniquely Islamic about it anymore. Its just become a very hedonistic event for an entire month when the focus should be connecting with Allah*. So, what we’re seeing really defeats the purpose of Ramadan.”

Ramadan isn’t just about food and music, it’s more about your inner peace.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, where Muslims fast from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, and is known as a month to practice spiritual discipline and self-reflection. The markets are held during April and May in multiple council areas, with the main ones in the western Sydney suburbs of Lakemba, Liverpool and Parramatta. 

After two years of cancellations due to COVID the most recent night markets delivered a buzzing event, bringing together Muslim and non-Muslims to celebrate both Ramadan and the ‘Blessed Nights Initiative’ which encompasses both Easter and Ramadan.

These nights have been particularly welcomed by western Sydneysiders who bore the brunt of lockdown restrictions. A NSW Crime Statistics Report found during lockdown, Western Sydney LGA’s had the toughest restrictions in comparison to other areas, with a 9am-5pm curfew for most of 2021, and heavy police surveillance, which impacted many resident’s mental wellbeing.

One visitor at the Liverpool event, Rose, herself a Muslim, said: “I think it’s a great opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims to unite and experience our traditions.

“[But] it is not a full picture of what Muslims do in this month. Ramadan isn’t just about food and music, it’s more about your inner peace.

“We usually don’t try to listen to music, but organisers can do as they please.”

Another markets-goer Hamza said: “We come for Tarawih [night prayer], so we’re praying together, and then you’ve got plenty of food options here. [You] get to meet a lot of different types of people… we’re getting a lot of people from different suburbs come in that probably usually wouldn’t come to Liverpool.”

The market nights also provided an opportunity for the food industry to bring business in, especially for small businesses who experienced uncertain times during COVID. 

Pakistani stallholder Wasim Ishtiaq, who makes the authentic meat dish kat-a-kat, told SBS Urdu: “It is great to see people coming to the markets and the huge crowd is good for business.”

Liverpool’s recent ‘Blessed Nights Initiative’. Photo: Ayesha Baig.

Liverpool’s ‘Blessed Nights Initiative’ night markets. Photo: Ayesha Baig.The growing popularity of the night markets has also led to complaints about crowd conduct, and particularly of at times disrespectful behaviour by non-Muslims towards the event.  

Journalist Sohaila Iqbal, who attended the Lakemba nights, said she witnessed first-hand disrespectful behaviour towards Muslim stall owners, and had even been yelled at by a stranger to ‘go back to her own country’.

“There were white people mocking the accents of Muslim South Asian people, complaining that there was no music even though that is a huge part of Ramadan festivities,” she told Central News.

“They laughed at the stall names, saying that ethnic food is gross. It is jarring to see that in a community that is supposed to be safe for Muslims and people of colour.

“I found that really frustrating and disappointing. And then I had a white woman yell at me and it was just one of those things that happen randomly in the streets of Sydney but not something you would expect in Lakemba, at an event for Muslim people run by Muslim people.”

She added: “I think in a lot of ways it is still an Islamic event, and that’s why people are racist. It is a Ramadan event and that would be clearer without the influx of tourists. I think the tourists are what divorces this event from being what it is about; the Muslim community appreciating each other.”

Iqbal believes it is important that Muslims speak out against disrespectful behaviours when they occur.

“I’m all for sharing our culture,” she said. “But there is a difference between sharing our culture and having it made fun of. I’m not saying we should ban white people from these events but if you are in line and someone in front of you says something racist, you should probably say ‘Why are you here?’.

“I think we need to create a safe space where that isn’t tolerated so naturally, people like that won’t come.”

If you want to draw people to experience Muslim culture, we should move away from this indulgence and financial gain of just selling burgers the whole month.

Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour said the markets had become one of NSW’s most significant culturally diverse festivals, with up to 30,000 people per night on weekends and 1.2 million over the month. He said it generated more than $5 million in revenue in the Liverpool area alone. 

“The feedback was that the event was a positive and uplifting cultural experience for Muslims and non-Muslims who attended,” he told Central News.

“This bought much-needed attention to our local businesses, especially the 61 food stalls at the event. And the revenue generated for these local businesses was fantastic. An average of $57 was spent per person on food and drink – you can do the math!

“We’re undertaking a review on how we can continue to improve and manage this growing event, and I will be in conversation with Destination NSW to see how we can embrace it as a tourist attraction for our state in the future.”

The Ramadan night markets are only expected to increase in popularity, with local authorities promising bigger events next year.

Sheikh Jamal said there were ways the event could be improved that would make everybody happy, and encouraged event organisers to consider the balance between a fun atmosphere for all, while respectfully representing authentic Islamic tradition.

If you want to draw people to experience Muslim culture, we should move away from this indulgence and financial gain of just selling burgers the whole month, and restrict it to one night a week or on weekends at least,” he said. 

Main image by Ayesha Baig.