Is Arab cultural distortion contributing to Islamophobia?

Rafieka Williams

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From Rihanna and Selena Gomez with their tattoos, to Chris Brown and Kanye West with their fashion statements, various things that have symbolic significance in the Arab world have been appropriated by celebrities and have become trends in the world of pop culture. I say this sh*t is unfair and it needs to stop! As […]

From Rihanna and Selena Gomez with their tattoos, to Chris Brown and Kanye West with their fashion statements, various things that have symbolic significance in the Arab world have been appropriated by celebrities and have become trends in the world of pop culture.

I say this sh*t is unfair and it needs to stop!

As a society constantly bombarded with the dynamic culture attached to celebrities, it’s easy to forget that all these symbols form part of the traditions of a people, Arab people.

The Arabic language – for instance – is sacred to Muslims and Arab people alike. It is the language of the Quran, the holy book of Islam and a primary example of Islamic scripture. The global spread of Arabic language is directly linked to the spread of Islam. Muslims recite specific scripts from the Quran to perform their five daily prayers. Yet, Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Angelina Jolie show off their Arabic tattoos like they’re accessories. Locally, Da Les recently donned a top with Arabic writings printed all over when he performed on the X Factor SA stage.


Rihanna and Selena Gomez showing off their tattoos
Rihanna and Selena Gomez showing off their tattoos


The keffiyeh is a checked head covering, usually white with either black or red blocks on it worn by Arab men. It also has salient significance for the support of Palestinian nationalism in the struggle for freedom from oppression by the Israeli government. However, celebrities tend to wear this traditional cloth as winter scarves around their necks for the sake of style. In 2007 this trend was all the rage amongst hip hop enthusiasts; the style trickled down and became a trend among the youth.


Chris Brown and Kanye West wearing a keffiyeh
Chris Brown and Kanye West wearing a keffiyeh

The shisha/hookah smoking pipe is also a well-known traditional leisurely activity heavily rooted in Arab culture.  Drake, Miley Cyrus and Teyana Taylor are often spotted smoking hookah. This was also picked up by the youth as a trend and can be seen at campuses such as  University of Johannesburg or Wits, where students smoke it frequently.

The hand of hamsa has various meanings that predate the Arab world but has been adopted to be symbolic of the hand of the prophet of Islam’s daughter and serves as protection from bad vibes. Today this symbol is all over tumblr as something used to decorate blogs.


The Hand of Hamsa is a well known symbol in Arab culture.
The Hand of Hamsa is a well known symbol in Arab culture.

All of these serve as indications of Arab heritage – which has been proliferated across the world but has origins in the Middle East – where these symbols form part of society. But what do we really know of the Middle East? What do we most frequently associate with the Middle East?

The consensus is that people perceive the Middle East to be rife with conflict – misguided and incomplete outlook based on true events. There is indeed warfare happening in Syria, Iraq and Palestine whereas places like Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya have experienced political unrest in the past.

However conflict in the Arab world became a focal point of the mainstream news media after 9/11 – an event that introduced the world to the potential that terrorism had to infiltrate borders. This consequently had damaging effects for perceptions held about the Arab world and all Muslims. Intensified media coverage, placing emphasis on the dangers of terrorism, instilled fear in the minds of non-Muslims all over the world.

Post-9/11 news coverage gave birth to a wider Islamophobia – prejudice against people of Islamic faith. This kind of discrimination is most common in American and European societies where there have been severe cases of terrorism that have occurred since 9/11. Cases such as the underground London train being bombed on July 7th 2005 or the Fort Hood (Texas, USA) massacre of November 5th 2009.

In entertainment media however, Arab culture has been affiliated with wealthy sheiks making illegal money or the violent nature of underground terrorist groups.

Hip-hop is one of the biggest appropriators of nearly all things Arabic, namely, the connotations of wealth. Busta Rhyme’s song Arab Money” is an example of such a distortion. The song features Arabic chants usually used in Islamic prayer as well as lyrics like, “y’all already know I got the streets bust, while I make ‘ya bow down and make salaat like a Muslim.” The song deals with all the ways Busta will be making “Arab money” which he will then blow on reckless behaviour.  M.I.A’s ” Bad Girls” music video is also an example of how Arab culture has become affiliated with recklessness.

Disappointingly, the aforementioned items were praised by the biggest supporters and consumers of pop culture – the youth. What pop culture enthusiasts fail to understand is that this brand of distortion works to further marginalise the voices of Arab and Islamic peoples which compounds growing prejudices.

Fatima, a Muslim student doing her  Masters Degree in chemistry, says with regards to celebrities borrowing Arab culture, “I think they know [we’re] cool, but they just don’t want to admit it, because then they look stupid because they already make fun of us.” She then goes on to add, “The media is controlled by people who hate us [Muslims] and I don’t think it’s ever going to change.” In her view, celebrities are in support of Islamophobia because the only way they promote Arab culture is to further their own careers.

The concern is that instead of showing how the symbols that they appropriate have contributed to the betterment of Arab society, they are using symbols from the Arab world to further distort these perceptions. As celebrities borrow these symbols and their fans follow suit, they lose their significance.

Kim Kardashian wears an Abaya during her visit to Dubai

When the masses never learn the meaning behind certain signs and symbols, this results in them forgetting about all that is good about Arab culture. As such, negative perceptions are able to take the lead.

Farhia Ibrahim, another chemistry student at Wits says, “Islam is not Arab only.” Adding that there is more to Islam than terrorists. She feels that the way Arab culture is portrayed in the media is unfair. Stating that mainstream media only show “the American side”. She ends off by saying, “In European countries, when numbers of people are killed by white people, they aren’t terrorists but when it’s an Arab person, [they’re automatically] a terrorist.”

Rabiya, a first-year Pharmacy student (who wears her Abaya everyday) feels as though the media has some obligation to debunk the myths about Islam and Arab people. “[If] the world is promoting equality, why can’t there be equality amongst religions?” she asked.

Although many of these symbols have been dispersed and borrowed over time, they still serve as important denotations of the Arab culture. With the way the celebrities have managed to make these symbols trends, it is important to keep in mind the hardships that are faced by Arab people and Muslim people with regards to their identity.

Arab people are unfairly represented in the media and for most people to have this preconceived idea of what the Arab world entails is a form of injustice to Arab people the world over. This form of cultural distortion is a trend in the fashion and entertainment industry that needs to be addressed. As mediums that are spread in society these are important ideological tools which shape the way people think. Misinformation about how the Arab culture (or any other cultural group!) is perceived should not be allowed. Even more important is how the Western world and its powerful leaders do little to help the people of the Middle East, allowing millions to die. This says much more about how minorities are taken advantage of and how the powerful are allowed to thrive. It’s an imbalance that we need to change.

As the youth we need to unearth these inequalities and educate ourselves about what is really happening in places like the Middle East so we know what to dismiss and what to take heed of. An informed perception is the first step to changing injustices.

Words: @LadyBandit93