I work in Hollywood, which is one of the centers of the fashion industry. Along with Paris and New York, Los Angeles is a city where trends are launched. While European runways may introduce the latest hemline, I suspect that it isn't until Hollywood movie stars adopt the new look that the trend spreads to the general populace.
But what exactly is "fashion"? I think most men and women appreciate beautiful clothes. I certainly do. But if we look deeper, the very idea of "fashion" is that a group of self-proclaimed arbiters of taste tell the general public what to wear for a brief periods of time in order to achieve social status. And then, once the trend has caught on and become widespread, the arbiters present new styles and proclaim the old ones outdated or out of vogue. And the cycle continues.
There is nothing wrong with that. The fashion cycle certainly keeps money flowing and provides a wonderful opportunity for creative people to keep creating new things. As a filmmaker, some of the most talented people I work with are successful fashion designers. Fashion is not by itself a problem.
But it is the underlying human need that it taps into - the desire to belong to a "high social status" group, to allow one's identity to be determined by the opinions of others - that is worth examining. When we say something is "fashionable" - whether it is a dress or a political movement - we are saying that people are endorsing it because by doing so they will be able to join a larger social wave, be part of something bigger than themselves. When something is fashionable, it is safe to participate in it without fear of becoming a social pariah.
I say all this because social trends run deeper than clothing. They reflect the undercurrents of society and impact human relationships in ways that are often surprising. Social trends reflect not only how we see ourselves, but also how we treat each other. The human need to fit in, to find safety in a group, by definition creates an "us versus them" mindset. The reason people join social trends is that we all desperately want to be part of the "cool club" so that we don't have to feel rejected and alone.
And the most prominent - and disturbing - social trend in the past several months has been that of bullying. Of people banding together to humiliate those they perceive as weaker than themselves. We have all heard of the tragic wave of teen suicides that have been the result of school bullying. And the story of the 33-year-old woman who bullied a dying 7-year-old child on Facebook has left many Americans speechless.
It is easy to say that teen (or adult) bullies are monsters, disconnected from the rest of us in their lack of empathy. The perpetrators are ostracized, their victims lauded. But what many people don't realize is that the social trend of bullying has in recent months taken on a new and ugly form that is becoming so pernicious that even people who consider themselves decent human beings participate without any guilt or even self-awareness.
I am talking about the new social trend of Islamophobia.
Being afraid of Muslims and being outspoken about that fear is not only trendy, it is the one social trend that unites people of all backgrounds, ages, and political parties. Whether you are a limousine liberal or a Tea Party revolutionary, you can find common ground with your neighbors on the one thing that transcends your differences - how much you fear Muslims.
I have written before about the "summer of hate" that was launched with the controversy around the New York Muslim community center in Manhattan. That fire was lit by media charlatans and then stoked by politicians who saw an easy way to use fear to garner votes. But that trend has become increasingly ugly, devolving from protesting the right of Muslims to build houses of worship near the ruins of Ground Zero, to the right of Muslims in a small New York town to even have a graveyard on their private property.
And now we have respected political commentators like Juan Williams, ostensibly a liberal voice in the media, revealing openly their personal fears of flying with Muslims. The fact that Mr. Williams, himself an African American who has undoubtedly experienced the injustice of people judging him by his appearance, has now become a beloved hero to bigots shows how fear of Islam can create improbable bedfellows.
As a Muslim who loves America (at least the country she used to be), I thought things couldn't get worse.
And then I read the ugly post by my fellow Huffington Post blogger Danielle Crittenden where she proudly recounts an incident where she misjudged innocent Muslim men at an airport as a threat and refused to board a plane with them. Their crime was that they were bearded, reading an Arabic newspaper, looked shifty, and prayed toward Mecca. Ms. Crittenden is unrepentant in her bigotry and proclaims she would do it all again "without question."
Many people of good will are wondering how we have gotten here. A decade after President George W. Bush stood in a Washington mosque in the aftermath of September 11th, courageously proclaiming Islam as a "religion of peace," we have come to a place where openly proclaiming your bigotry toward Islam will only increase your social status.
Hating Muslims is cool. It is fashionable. At last all Americans (except me and my loved ones, I guess) can stand together and bully the one group that symbolizes everything that we hate and fear about the world. If you are a liberal you can hate Islam by saying it stands for oppression of women, religious control over government, homophobia and medieval punishments.
If you are a conservative, you might secretly admire those very things that liberals say they hate about Islam, but you can openly hate it for being a threat to Judeo-Christian culture, for being an opponent of Israel, and for being a dangerously seductive rival religion that continues to gain converts, perhaps leading to the Apocalypse. The fact that Islamic banking, which renounces interest, is a thriving rival to the shaky Western financial shell-game might scare your banker's pocketbook as well, so you can start screaming about Shariah law supplanting the Constitution.
It is easy to be a bully when the whole world appears to be on your side. Bullies love to present themselves as aggrieved victims, even though they only have the courage to attack those weaker than themselves. Bullying is always an act of cowardice, requiring the backing of a mob to be effective. True courage comes when someone stands alone and speaks truth to power.
I recently received an email from a 19-year-old Southern woman who converted to Islam and is facing tremendous social rejection from her community. The bigotry she is facing for putting a Muslim scarf on her head is heartbreaking, and I have been providing what little emotional support and guidance I can. Yet what I find remarkable is that the more hatred she experiences as a white woman who embraced Islam, the more she is drawn to the faith for comfort. The bullies are only succeeding in making her take Islam even more seriously.
It is the knowledge that the human spirit is more powerful than the best efforts of the bullies and the bigots that gives me hope. For in their efforts to rally together against an imaginary foe, they are bringing far more attention to Islam, and in the process opening the hearts of others to this magnetic faith.
I close with a lesson I was taught to be my spiritual mentor, who was actually not Muslim, but Jewish. In fact, he was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was my professor of Religion at Dartmouth College and we would have lively debates in his Introduction to Judaism course, in which I was the only Muslim among over a hundred Jewish students. Hertzberg took his faith in God very seriously and would often annoy some of the more secular Jews in the class who were atheists but still identified with Judaism culturally. In fact, we often joked together that we were the only two people in the room who ever prayed.
It wasn't cool or fashionable to be a practicing Muslim in college. I didn't drink alcohol. I had a rather conservative attitude toward sex outside of marriage. And I prayed five times a day, sometimes in the corners of campus buildings, to the shock of some of my classmates who wondered what the hell I was doing kneeling on the ground toward Mecca. The social pressure, the isolation and loneliness of being different, weighed on my heart. I loved Dartmouth but I didn't feel I would ever fit in unless I started hiding my faith, making compromises with my identity in order to have an easier life.
I once turned to Rabbi Hertzberg and asked his advice about whether it would just be easier for me to "hide being a Muslim." He looked at my, his eyes filling with intense emotion. "Never," Rabbi Hertzberg said in a forceful voice. "Never sacrifice your authenticity just to be like everyone else. That is your duty to God and to yourself."
Twenty years later it is even harder to be a Muslim in this country. And now that it is fashionable for people of all stripes to openly deride Islam, I know that many of my fellow American Muslims are wondering whether it will be easier to just go with the flow and hide who we are. Stop praying at airports. Stop dressing differently. Stop being authentic and alone.
But Arthur Hertzberg's words stay with me and echo through my heart. The great thing about fashion is that it is always changing. The trend may be against us, but it is up to Muslims and other people of good will to stand tall, despite the dark storms of bigotry and bullying that seek to knock us down. The storms will pass, and one day the winds will change and a new social trend will begin. A social trend where each of us will be encouraged to be true to ourselves, to embrace our own unique identities. One day, "fitting in" will be seen as less of a virtue than standing out and being true.
When that day comes, we will fashion an America that will truly make the Founders proud.
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