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The Appropriation of Islam in the Entertainment Industry

BY: LAMA MOHAMMED

It comes as no surprise that the year 2020 served as a wake-up call to many regarding their absence in activism and participation in injustice by continuing to ignore the mistreatment BIPOC face every day. For years, online discussions have called society's attention to the appropriation of people of color's culture by their oppressors, which is sometimes executed in a demeaning and hypersexualized manner. Unfortunately, these practices have continued to exist, especially through the appropriation of Islam in the entertainment industry. These actions are witnessed in the misuse of hijabs by models, the featuring of ambiguously looking mosque buildings in music videos, and most recently, the remix of hadiths into pop music. 

At Rihanna's 2020 Savage X Fenty Fashion Show, a song called "Doom" by London artist Coucou Chloe was played during the presentation of her lingerie line. It was not until after the clip was released that Muslims realized that a hadith, which is a collection of sacred sayings and practices by the prophet Muhammed (Peace be Upon him), was remixed into the song.

Hadiths are words that guide Muslims into the afterlife and are second next to the Quran. Using Islam in music and fashion alienates Muslims as audience members. It angered the community particularly because Fenty's platform serves as a premier fashion company in the categories of diversity and inclusivity. The Fenty line was applauded for featuring Halima Aden, a hijab-wearing model, in its debut campaign. However, simply having a hijabi model is not enough to highlight the struggles and discrimination Muslim women face every day, especially when accounting for their unique experience as a result of the intersecting dynamics of religion, race, and ethnicity. Due to such, there is still prevalent Islamophobia existing in the West that bleeds into the consistent appropriation and usage of Islam, and its normalization makes Muslims seem like they are "overreacting" when they want to call out this misusage in entertainment.  

Quickly following the fashion show, Rihanna issued an apology on her Instagram story where she emphasized that her mistake was "honest, yet careless" and her intention was never to cause any harm or disrespect to Muslims. Although her apology is genuine, and I personally forgive her, it is the neglect of fact-checking the music and its origins that have "othered" Muslim fans. It is also unfortunate that this is not the first time Islam has been appropriated in fashion. 

In the first Fenty fashion show, the models wore scarves around their heads that closely resembled hijabs. Although Islam is not the only religion or culture where headscarves are worn, it is the idea that when a Muslim woman wears a headscarf out of practice she is considered "oppressed" and "backward," whereas models like Bella Hadid or Lady Gaga are considered "revolutionary" or "breaking barriers." The power dynamics at play cannot be ignored because the appropriators do not have to worry about the complexity and meaning behind the hijab when wearing it. The religious and cultural practice has been reduced to a sexual ploy and a way to come off as "coy" and "mysterious." The fashion industry is harming Muslim women whose voices are ignored and overpowered in public discourse. The appropriation of the hijab and misusage of religious texts does not provide insight into the history and tradition of Islam, but rather complicates it to benefit the sexual fantasies of "Western male voyager," as Edward Said details in his groundbreaking book, "Orientalism."  

"Orientalism" is a way of seeing that emphasizes, exaggerates, and distorts the differences of Arab people and their culture when compared to Europe and the US. This is explicitly seen in Korean boyband NCT U's "Make a Wish (Birthday Song)" music video, where the band members danced on a set that replicated a mosque, as well as on prayer mats with shoes. There were also scenes where the artists swung on a hanging fanous, which is a traditional Egyptian lantern and widely used during the holy month of Ramadan. The entirety of the music video accessorized references to Islam and profited from the appropriation of Arab culture. A consistent theme in the video is Middle Eastern and Islamic mysticism, where there is a scene displaying the band members in black robes and dancing around a fire. Essentially, the band is "role-playing" the common misconceptions of the Middle East to provoke a "spooky" environment –– this act is completely disrespectful and racist.

As outlined in "Orientalism," the "mystical" stereotype has evolved in such a way that individuals can create their own "theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts" concerning Islam and Arab culture. NCT U is not doing this because they love Muslim people or Arab culture, but because they enjoy using our traditions and culture as a costume to look "exotic" and "provoking" on their video set. Like Lady Gaga, this is something the pop band can take on and off without having to face any of the injustices that Muslim and Arab people face every day based on the way they live and practice their beliefs. 

The line between appreciation and appropriation has become so blurred when individuals take advantage of our community's clothing, customs, and beliefs only to play it off as "exotic," and therefore, diminish our culture's usage of clothing and historical origins of our practices. Appropriation is what perpetuates the violence and hostility towards Muslim people through the consistent "othering" of their practices. Religion should not be someone's aesthetic, and when the time comes to stand against Islamophobia or xenophobia, none of these individuals (except for Rihanna) are there to be found. The public loves to praise celebrities' efforts at equality and stances against racism when such events are popularized, but this equality is only hypothetical until society begins to deconstruct its damaging and insulting caricatured perceptions about Islam and Arab culture. 


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