Warping FaithBig Brands & Government Are Refashioning Muslim Identity
Amina Shareef reports on the latest commodification of the Muslim faith by a big fashion brand – and why it fits into the British state’s wider security strategy
The top American fashion label, Tommy Hilfiger, has recently launched its latest accessory – the hijab – complete with its iconic initials ‘TH’ branded into the fabric.
The fashion hijab is the latest, but almost certainly not the final, co-option of Islamic dress by the hawkish fashion industry, joining a closet stocked with haute couture abayas, designer burkinis, and high street modest ware.
The Hilfiger hijab has received glowing reception – a sign of the increasing ‘inclusiveness’ of the white, Western, secular, thin-bodied, ableist norms of the fashion world. However, others have rightly pointed out the lucrative economy that promises staggering returns for global brands looking to demonstrate their gracious tolerance through sartorial practices otherwise branded as ‘threatening’ ‘fundamentalist,’ and ‘misogynistic’.
But why now? Indeed, Muslim women have long needed clothing that conforms to their scriptural requirements. What is the context for Tommy Hilfiger jumping on boar now?
Branded hijabs weave the Islamic head covering with secular meaning.
While Muslim women worldwide wear the hijab for a plethora of reasons, according to scripture, the hijab is one way in which women who want to live in a world full of God pursue spiritual consciousness.
This spiritual dimension is degraded through branded hijabs.
Branded hijabs invite women who want to live in a world full of commodities to seek the fantasy of status elevation through their proximity with designer labels. Designer labels embellish the the hijab with the illusion of worldly gain. In so doing, they secularise it.
The branded hijab works as a form of secular management of religion. It reduces the Islamic head wear to multicultural exotica – fashionable diversity – and re-fashions Islamic sartorial practices as culture.
The public display of culture, rather than faith, is more comfortable for secular sensibilities usually affronted by the public reminder of religion.
From this viewpoint, the branded hijab reforms the symbol to fit the norms of a public sphere aspiring towards a certain kind of secular society.
But, by extension, the reform of hijab is also intertwined with the reform of the Muslim subject. The branded hijab produces a secular Muslim subject – one whose cultural practices reference religion but which are actually about commodities and consumption.
The Security State
The reform of the Muslim has long been a central goal of the European counter-terrorism agenda.
Yvonne Haddad, Professor of the History of Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations at Georgetown University, argues that “for many government leaders today, the question is no longer how to help Muslims feel at home in foreign societies, but how to ensure that these societies produce the right kind of Muslim… how to fashion loyal Muslim citizens that share European values.”
This quest is reflected in the Government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, which has overseen state involvement in the management and re-making of Muslim institutions such as mosques, Islamic schools, and imam training institutes.
For example, Prevent supported the establishment of the ‘Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board’ – a regulatory body that oversees accreditation and good governance of mosques; the ‘Islam Citizenship Education Project’ – an initiative to produce teaching material on citizenship for use in independent Muslim schools; and the ‘Review of Muslim Faith Leader Training’ – an investigatory body that scrutinises the curriculum, pedagogy and links with mainstream education of imam training programmes.
These initiatives seek to permeate the institutions that produce the next generation of British Muslim leaders. ‘British values’, it is hoped, will make up part of the ethos within which British Muslims form their identity and faith practices.
Ultimately, the aim is to create ‘acceptable’ British Muslim subjects: appropriately secular, who separate private religious identity from obligations relating to public civic identity, and are moderate in faith practice, uninterested in transnational politics and loyal to the nation and secular law.
Supply and Demand
Seen through the lens of the security state’s Muslim reform agenda, the branded hijab takes on a less inclusive and more sinister motif.
The Prevent strategy confirms, as Haddad notes, that “state policy seeks even to manipulate Muslims’ private religious identity in the interests of national security”.
Branded hijabs – in helping to ‘reform’ religious identity – offer the outcome the security state has as an objective. This link does not imply intentionality or cooperation between high-end brands and the security apparatus, but it does help us answer the question: why now?
Branded hijabs must be situated within the larger counter-terrorist goal of reforming the Muslim through ‘British’ values. In this context, public recognition of Muslim faith practice is actually about making it more benign, less radical, and neutralising its subversive potential in the eyes of the security state.