The “Mipsterz” video debacle: Westernization vs westoxification

The recent debate surrounding the “Somewhere in America” video by Sheikh & Bake Productions has thus far been by Muslim women of the West about Muslim women of the West. The discussion involves the balance in their lives between what Sana Saeed, in her discussion-generating article, calls “normal,” “Americanness,” and “Western” on one side and “ourselves” on the other.
The term “Mipster” came up often in this debate because of the producers’ connection with a social group called Mipsterz. Mipster, an amalgamation of the words Muslim and Hipster, in this debate refers to hijabi Muslim women who dress outside expected norms of their cultures of origin, embracing a more “Western” style. So what is a Mipster then? A “Muslim” who is too “Western” in the eyes of other “Muslims,” seems to be the answer. But what does it mean to be “Western” and what does it mean to be “Muslim?” Saeed says, “We’re so incredibly obsessed with appearing ‘normal’ or ‘American’ or ‘Western’ by way of what we do and what we wear that we undercut the actual abnormality of our communities.”

When Saeed speaks about “the actual abnormality of our communities” she seemingly identifies this abnormality as the non-Western cultures of immigrants. It is not Islam she is referring to – even adopting a literalist view, the majority of their dress styles still conform to the teachings of the major Madhabs. No distinction seems to be made between Westernization and Westoxification – a term University of Tehran professor, Ahmed Fardid, originally used in the 1940s, popularized by Jalal-e-Ahmad’s book Gharbzadegi, to describe the wholesale imitation of modern, capitalist, post-religious Western values and culture at the expense of other worldviews.

The “abnormality” that contrasts Islamic communities with surrounding non-Muslim communities is Islam, not the degree of assimilation with the surrounding culture. As a born and bred Westerner from the Midwest, I identify fully as Western and Muslim. If the clash is between what is normal, what is American, what is Western and “ourselves,” what is my place and the place of my fellow Western converts? Are we inescapably Mipsterz? Poor us, we do not even have that abnormal mystic Eastern “ourself” we can flee to.

There is no fundamental civilizational clash between Islam and any culture. Islam has adapted to local customs, languages, and (dare I say it!) styles of dress. After all Islam adopted itself to Turkish, Iranian, African, Indian, Chinese and countless other cultures without losing its soul — it can do the same with Western culture, but not its Westoxic corruption. As Sohaib Sultan said, “Islamic history has shown that wherever Islam has gone… Muslims have adapted [in dress, architecture, culture and beauty] to fit in.”

Certainly, there are problematic, negative, Westoxic aspects of the video: mainly the song choice, issues surrounding the objectification of women, and its materialistic aftertaste. The negative reaction seen in certain quarters towards Westoxic culture is entirely understandable and justified, but confusing it with the West as a civilization is a grave mistake. This Westoxic chimera of a culture, feigning the real civilization of the West is not the Western culture I love and consider myself a part of. This is a civilization that produced the great Gothic cathedrals, art like the Book of Kells, and religious minds like Meister Eckhart. It is the same Western culture that evolved to now produce this video. Whatever its artistic merit, if any, the video’s co-creators, Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi, point out: “We think we speak for most people in this project when we say that we were not thinking about legitimizing any false dichotomies between ‘American’ and ‘Islamic’ culture. We live both of these cultures simultaneously, we are authentic within each.”

We can see current hipsterism as a similar reaction to Westoxic modernity, an attempt by Westerners to try to rediscover the authentic and traditional from within their own civilization. But these revivals mostly took place without a cultural or metaphysical context to put them in. It brought back the form without essence and context. For Muslims in the West, Islam is the cultural and metaphysical context we have to place Western culture in. The clash is not between the West and ourselves, the clash is between Westoxification and ourselves.

For more AltMuslimah coverage on this topic:
While I was sleeping by Sabina Khan-Ibarra
Somewhere in America, Muslim Women Are… by Wardah Khalid and Laila Alawa
Somewhere in America, Muslim women are freaking out and fitting in by Nadia S. Mohammad
The “Mipsterz” video debacle: an interview with Abbas Rattani & Habib Yazdi by Asma T. Uddin

Photo Credit: Cecilia Sanchez Sanchez
Brendan Behrmann resides in Toronto, but was born in Ohio. He grew up in a fairly secular, yet mixed-faith home. From a young age he had a strong interest in religion and philosophy, eventually leading him to Islam during his university years. He specializes in issues of culture, politics, faith, and technology.

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