September 3rd, 2005


Fashion Muslim (strategies for anti-racist actions)

Berlin's a pretty tolerant town, but whenever I wear my white Moroccan robe (and the weather this week has been Moroccan in Berlin) I get the strangest reactions. Something doesn't compute. The wild looks you see here all tend to follow fairly rigid patterns. The industrial goths wear long black leather skirts, for instance, but you can always tell what tribe they're part of. But a white man dressed as a Muslim... what tribe is that? Whose side is he on? What's he playing at? Is this the start of some trend we'd have to call something like "Fashion Muslim"?

At the Turkish market on the Maybachufer in Kreuzberg yesterday I felt somewhat at home dressed as a "Fake Muslim", surrounded as I was by "real Muslims", mostly Turkish women with their heads covered. But Turkish men tend to dress in Western styles. One, sitting at a cafe, said "Salaam alaikum!" as I approached. It wasn't an entirely friendly Salaam, though, more of a quo vadis; the man gestured a confounded slap to his head as he spoke, as if to say "Oh no, now there are kaffir dressing up as Muslims. Fashion Muslims, that's all we need!"

What would it mean if non-Muslims started dressing like Muslims? Would it be an insult to real Muslims, or a tribute? I think it's almost inevitable that Muslim-inspired looks will be adopted by non-Muslims in the near future. It'll happen for a variety of reasons, some of them contradictory:

* Solidarity Dressing: Youth culture tends to take its lead from oppressed subcultures and underclasses, partly so that they can't easily be discriminated against. This is done to make the minority community less vulnerable, less visible. If we all look like Muslims, and the streets are filled with mock-Muslims and Fashion Muslims, it's more difficult for racists to single out real Muslims and attack them. This is a kind of reverse-assimilation: the majority culture assimilates to the minority culture for its protection. "Don't assimilate to our styles," we seem to tell the minority culture, "they—and we—aren't that great anyway. We love you just the way you are, and we're going to decrease tension between us and you by learning something from you rather than teaching you how to look, feel, see, speak and live like us."

* Compensation Dressing: While "Solidarity Dressing" is going on, there's a complementary process going on in the immigrant community: integration. Whereas the more traditional, conservative, radical or elderly members of the community might exaggerate their particularity, young 2nd generation immigrants are often wearing Western styles. This assimilation creates an anxiety amongst admirers of cultural difference: the anxiety that different styles, and diversity itself, might die out. So the kaffir takes it upon himself to dress with the difference the young 2nd generation immigrant has repudiated. A strange bond is struck between young liberals in the indigenous community and old conservatives in the immigrant community. The cause: their shared disdain for the dominant monoculture. The result: a kind of musical chairs in which we all change places and exchange styles. I dress like a Muslim, while a Muslim dresses as I might otherwise have done (New York sweatshirt, baseball cap, suit, whatever). The idea that some styles are right and others are wrong, or that one style might have "won" the race and another lost it, those are horrible ideas, aren't they? So let's blur stuff up.

* De-Criminalisation: Liberals from the dominant culture are appalled by the idea that certain dress-codes come to signify criminal behaviours. We've recently seen hooded tops in the UK being associated with black street crime, and backpacks with Islamist terrorism. Result: both hooded tops and backpacks have been, or are likely to be, generalised as fashion signifiers throughout the wider population, and their association with deviant immigrant subcultures accordingly erased. (Note that the ban on "hoodies" in certain UK shopping centres has recently been lifted, largely because the hoody has become a generalised fashion signifier and no longer denotes the criminality of a deviant underclass.) Although this generalisation of racially particularised styles has a liberal motive—the desire for cross-racial unity—it's also motivated by something less liberal: an anxiety about visible differences. In other words, a rejection of pluralism.

* The Glamour of Violence: Here we reach a muddying factor, a mixed motive. When the general population buys into a signifier like the hooded top, one motive is to de-criminalize the image of the garment, and therefore the image of the racial group it's associated with. But another motive is to buy into the very image of criminality — to look "well hard". This is done as self-protection (if I can pass as a criminal type, real criminals may leave me alone), but also as a kind of talismanic identification with the sexiness of violence itself.

* Double-Edged Sword: Visual identification with a delinquent underclass cuts both ways. In the 90s, for instance, the white football hooligan became a style avatar for British people. This diluted the dress code of a small band of violent skinhead fascists, but it also spread their values throughout a much wider population, albeit in super-mild versions. There's some kind of weird homeopathic thing going on here: in order to reduce our chances of meeting with real ultraviolence, we buy into the symbolism of ultraviolence. We make it friendly and familiar. Something similar is going on with Goth style's domestication of death. By making Death cute and friendly and familiar, we make it less terrifying. "Oh, Death, I know him," we seem to say, "I see him in the mirror every time I get dressed in my undertaker's clothes."

These were the thoughts going through my head as I performed my little Fashion Muslim Action in Kreuzberg yesterday, with only a short break for lunch in a Japanese restaurant run by Chinese but decorated with incredible (staged) authenticity, and a look around the utterly appropriate exhibition Moving On: Border Activism — Strategies for Anti-Racist Actions at the ever-radical NGBK Gallery on Oranienstrasse. This group show included one photo which rounded off my day's thoughts perfectly: a shot by Julika Rudelius of two white women with a darker-skinned child, standing outside a hypermarket, dressed in hijabs. Salaam Alaikum, Art Muslims!