The Culture of My Category

It seems the Happy debate is still there, rankling like a pint of milk going mouldy at the back of the fridge. While the fiqh (jurisprudence) debate will probably go on and on forever, as there’s no definitive scriptural prohibition on music, it seems there is a kind of aesthetic irritation present whenever Muslims are seen doing something ‘western’.

Critics of the Happy British Muslims video often cite the fact that Muslims are ‘having to prove that they are human’ by the criteria of a largely white, western mediated hegemony. Apart from the fact that Pharrell Williams in not white, which undermines of whole argument (particularly as there are millions of black American Muslims, and millions more African Muslms), what we have here is a very sticky case of cultural appropiation.

When is it OK for a white person to sing dancehall music in Jamaican patois? Can Japanese women learn to dance flamenco? Are Americans crossing a line when they got o Russia to drink vodka? I’ve met plenty who do it very well. MY alma mater, SOAS, was famous for its ‘trustafarians’, white kids from wealthy backgrounds who liked to hang out with Baye Fall Sufis, wear ethnic clothing and bang on about imperialism with a reefer in their hand.

If you are a Western Muslim, a revert for instance, the situation gets slightly more complicated. It’s not just OK to adopt elements of a different culture, you’re actually kind of expected to. Your clothing isn;t complete without a hijab, kufi, item of jewellery with an Arabic inscription or garment with a ‘foreign’ look to it. Your English-sounding name will very likely be looked at with skepticism, prompting you to take on an Arabic one. Your choice of spouse will very likely reflect your outward-looking gaze, and then there’ll be endless obligatory visits to the other half’s homeland, not to mention intense efforts on the part of your new in-laws to instruct you in the ways of their country.

It is faintly amusing, actually, this nonsensical neurosis surrounding cultural appropriation, when you’re Anglo-American, white as a box of Daz, and have always been Muslim. I’ll listen to Hamza El Din, Celia Cruz or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just as easily as I would the Isley Brothers, Yuna or Estrella Morente…but hold on a minute…none of them are white, Anglo-American, or Muslim! Am I allowed to like them? Or is it OK to listen to their music but not to sing their songs myself??

If I’m restricted to the culture of my category, then I’m going to end up listening only to my own music, as there really aren’t any others out there whose group I belong to. Not even Adele, who is about the only white British singer I can stand, and even so, I don’t own any of her music. Am I a self-hating Brit? Not really. Brits have always wanted to left this very tiny island and seek their fortunes around the world. That doesn’t take the Brit out of you, though. As much as I want to be true to my roots, this nationalistic pride drummed up by UKIP lunatics makes me reach for the sickbag. Surely there must be some other way of finding an authentic identity?

To me, part of the beauty of Islam is that is encourages us to transcend our boundaries, accept one another as members of a vast, international family that is made richer for its variations, but which is not stingy with them. Everywhere I’ve travelled in the Muslim world, people have expressed not only delight at my own pathetic efforts to absorb elements of their culture, but eager to learn about my own.

There is a kind of mutual admiration across the planet that finds its expression in cultural appropriation, but which has tap roots way down in love for humanity. Muslims who have received a western education, particularly one that emphasises anti-imperialist trends, have a slew of arguments sloshing around inside out heads itching to latch themselves onto this or that issue, and debate it into the ground. We over-think everything, being ourselves over-thought, over-scrutinised and over-noticed. It’s so hard to get back to a simple, intuitive approach to life, in which different cultures can be appreciated and absorbed without flagellating ourselves over it.

Without any further ado, watch this video and marvel at the Iranian-American cultural fusion. Argument over.

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