Self-Orientalism amongst Muslim diaspora fashion

Lina
8 min readMay 23, 2021

Muslims in the West are familiar with what has been coined as “diaspora fashion.” Diaspora fashion generally evokes the imagery of words in Arabic script printed on Gildan hoodies, sold by brands that claim to be revitalizing culture. These brands are countless — each appearing to revive a culture the founders deem dying. Diaspora fashion is criticized and memefied on social media; it consistently evokes a critical response. This is because diaspora fashion engages in one common trope that is of complex breadth — the idea of self-orientalism and essentialism.

Orientalism

Before understanding self-orientalism, we must first explore and understand the concept of orientalism. Orientalism is an ideology that refers to the West’s encounter with non-Western areas, termed the “Orient.” The Orient includes Africa, Asia, South America, and societies that are not considered “Western.” Critiques of orientalism were popularized by the late Professor Edward Said, a Palestinian American academic. Said’s critiques of orientalism continue to be formative to how we understand the relationship between the West and its encounter with the Orient. Orientalism may prove how Western society views any non-Western society — through a lens of otherization and fetishization. This can be commonly shown in European paintings of West Asia; what they see as exotic non-Western lands with a heightened stereotypical lens, created from the notions of imperialism and fetishized imagination (the latter of which can be alluded to with European paintings of the harem, where painters were not allowed into; thus creating an imaginative image of what West Asian women existed as). Orientalism describes how the West has relied on imperialist notions to view the areas that were imperialized — constantly as “Other” — through a deeply stereotypical lens.

Self-Orientalism

With this definition of orientalism, we can unpack self-orientalism. Self-orientalism is understanding the process through which members of the “Orient” engage in generalizations, stereotypes, and self-sabotage to appeal to a Western audience. This can be shown through a case-study by Stiffler, a researcher at the Arab American National Museum: the case of the Kirdahy brothers, a pair of Arab Americans. The Kirdahys owned a Syrian restaurant originally called “Kirdahy Bros. Oriental Restaurant” in the 1920s. They later changed their restaurant’s name to “The Sheik” after many popular and exceedingly orientalist films about the Middle East were released — more notably The Son of the Sheik by Rudolph Valentino. Stiffler suggests that the Kirdahy brothers capitalized on a fascination with an “exotic” Middle East that was increasing in the United States at the time.

On one hand, self-orientalism can provide a tool for groups affected by orientalist tropes to reclaim the significant aspects of their culture by appealing to their culture’s exotic nature. On the other hand, self-orientalism reinforces the orientalist nature of the Western rhetoric surrounding a non-Western group, allowing for an identity to become essentialized. Thus, “strategic essentialism” is established. Strategic essentialism is a concept coined by the thinker Spivak. This concept refers to how members of different minority groups may mobilize on a shared basis of cultural or political identity to represent themselves. This idea can be seen primarily amongst the diaspora Muslim community, who frequently forego cultural differences to be seen as simply Muslim. Why is this problematic then — shouldn’t this be more beneficial than not?

I would argue that strategic essentialism and self-orientalism cause more harm to the Muslim diaspora community than benefit, precisely in the case of diaspora fashion. Throughout this article, I will delve into the following: the homogenization of identity and why that is more harmful than beneficial; white saviorism amongst the Muslim diaspora; and lastly, mass production of items that are meant to be symbolic of Muslims/Islam.

A quick Google search of “Muslim diaspora fashion” will lead to dozens of brands’ websites. It seems the simple formula of a diaspora fashion brand is the following: a catchy name that somehow reflects something reminiscent of Islam or Arab culture (the latter is a point I will elaborate upon below); the words “salam”, “sabr,” “alhamdulillah” printed upon a mass-produced hoodie or crewneck; a mission statement that reflects the idea of preserving culture, tradition, or Islamic values; a patchwork denim jacket; and lastly, any item that allows one to buy a map of the borders of their home country, drawn by colonial powers. Islam is then used as a selling point for the brand, using faith as a tool to deter criticism or feedback.

Many brands then, although may have good intentions, seem to lack the necessary capabilities to create a product that is genuinely an embodiment of “Islamic values” or an object that is able to “preserve culture.” What do Islamic values look like [in the West?]? What does preserving culture mean? Let’s dive deeper into these two questions.

For the former question, I would argue that Islamic values would include the idea of pluralism, intentionality, and ethics. Pluralism is the idea that there are many ways to exist, and that these differences can be valid and correct; they are not wrong. This idea has been in practice in many Islamicate areas around the world. It is why such rich and diverse ways of practice exist amongst Muslims. The idea of intentionality and ethics is simply that to embody intention and Islamic ethics within these brands, there must be constant evaluation of what these brands are genuinely doing. Engaging in the mass production of items should not be symbolic of Islamic values. Printing an Arabic phrase on a $5 in value wholesale hoodie, and then charging 10x the original value is parallel to fast fashion brands producing low-quality items with unethical labor. Furthermore, the point of intentionality is that there is a lack of design with these products.

The next idea is that of these brands engaging in self-orientalism and forcing a homogenous identity onto the Muslim diaspora. Although it may seem harmless to have a brand that emphasizes itself as an “Islamic streetwear brand,” only including phrases and words in Arabic reinforces harmful stereotypes that Arab and Muslim can be conflated. Arabs make only a small percentage of Muslims in the diaspora (and worldwide), yet Arabic culture is equated to an overall Islamic culture; it is seen as normative. Anything outside of the norm then, can be deemed “un-Islamic” or not Muslim enough. This is due to many factors beyond the scope of this article, but should be noted and understood if we are to further legitimize these arguments.

Through strategic essentialism, many Muslims from diverse backgrounds have put themselves into the category of “Muslim” and “Muslim only.” This can be harmful because it somewhat perpetuates the idea that all Muslims are the same and practice similarly. Thus, when a Muslim may practice differently than what is essentialized, they are delegitimized. An example is how many South Asian syncretized practices are demonized by the false notion that they are “cultural” — practices such as qawwali, Sufism, and visiting shrines. In West Africa, modesty may be expressed through colorful patterns and turbans, yet there is a visible reproach to these expressions of modesty — they are seen as out of normativity, un-Islamic, not Muslim enough.

Diaspora Muslim fashion brands operate on harmful self-orientalism and strategic essentialism without considering the diversity that exists amongst the Muslim diaspora. Instead of forcing homogenous identity onto Muslims, brands should celebrate the diversity of Muslims rather than erased.

For many brands, one of the extents to which they highlight the Islamicate world’s diversity is when they sell products with images of maps of Muslim-majority countries. Though, to engage critically with this, we should note that many of these countries exist with colonial borders drawn by the West. Rather than celebrating the diverse expressions of Islam found throughout the world, we celebrate the drawn lines that we had little to do with in the first place. Borders that have led to conflict, war, displacement, and confusion of identity that results in trauma.

Western saviorism

To digress, however, the other issue is that through strategic essentialism, many Muslims engage in “white saviorism” as a result of self-orientalism. White saviorism has roots in the “The White Man’s Burden” which perpetuates the idea that whites should spread their “greatness” to the world and “save” uncivilized barbarians by bringing them to development. For the remainder of this essay, I will shift the phrasing from “white saviorism” to “Western saviorism.” I do this because I believe that white saviorism has extended to be a tenant of Westernism, meaning that one who can utilize the privilege of a Western passport through Western imperialism to engage in harmful rhetoric is quite similar to the white savior. The Western savior amongst Muslims then, comes to the idea that many Western Muslims tend to believe that they follow a “true” Islam, one that is not watered down by culture, or so they believe. This rhetoric is untrue and is intensely harmful to those who live in the non-West and who exist in non-Western spaces. It reduces the diverse practices in the Islamicate world, and further demonizes those who may utilize cultural syncretism in their daily practice. Not only is this a symptom of Western saviorism, but also of Muslim essentialism and self-orientalism.

To further synthesize, I wish to explain further how an aspect of creating homogenous identity contains the idea of claiming cultures that are not your own to be your own. Although I would stray away from cultural appropriation in this respect (because of the implied power dynamic that must exist for something to be considered cultural appropriation, which would need case-by-case analysis), and simply explain the phenomenon that is occurring. To do this, we must understand the concept of a cosmopolitan as coined by the academic Elizabeth Lena. A cosmopolitan adopts an “inclusive cultural ethos” that sets them apart from their parents’ generation. This cultural ethos can be used as a marker of high social status. Cosmopolitans tap into the elite space of experience — their identity is formed through a veil of elitism and globalization of culture. Globalization has created a global culture that stems from imposed neoliberalism and capitalism, leading to forced hybridization of cultures worldwide. Features of local cultures are taken and repackaged to be adaptable to cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitans pretend that culture is universal; it is accessible to anyone who “appreciates it.” Culture becomes, then, a form of aesthetics, stylized, accessible, with quirky fonts and fund packaging. It is a way to be seen as elite, relevant. It is watered-down, but it is still essentialized as “ethnic” or, in our case, Islamic. Cosmopolitans, thus, thrive on self-orientalism, essentialism, and forcible homogeneity. The Orient as a geography is vast — stretching from Africa to the Pacific Islands to Asia.

As members of the Orient, it is quite easy to think of ourselves as one collective group all affected by colonialism, Westernism, and orientalism by agreeing that the Orient is a monolith that can be categorized so easily and generally. However, applying this generalization is feeding into orientalism by taking aspects of a culture that may not be yours and allowing oneself to fetishize it for the comfort of selling a few mass-produced hoodies.

Sources:

Lena, Jennifer C. (2019). Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts. Princeton University Press. Pages 100–135

Stiffler, Matthew Jaber (2014). “Consuming Orientalism: Public Foodways of Arab American Christians.” Mashriq and Mahjar. Vol 2, No 2. Pages 111–138.

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