Lindsay Lohan’s interest in Islam has been a media staple for months.
The actress of ‘The Mean Girls’ and ‘Freaky Friday’ is hailed by Arab and Muslim media and numerous social media users as some kind of a cultural and religion saviour.
Lohan’s interest and possible conversion to Islam has branched into all sorts of areas of discussion.
She has been brutally criticised by many who have branded her a race traitor, and has been, according to her, ‘racially profiled’ during a recent trip to the United States.
Conflating race and religion is typical of western society wherein cultural appropriation foolishly defines certain religions as western and others as ‘ethnic’, ‘coloured’ and ‘foreign.’
While Lohan is still making up her mind about whether to join the Muslim faith or not, she recently announced that she will be launching a new fashion line.
The announcement on Instagram was accompanied by a photo in which the actress was covering her head and part of her face with a crystals-embellished scarf.
Many, including some in the media, are deducing that the fashion line is that of the modest, Muslim variety.
Concurrently, a most recent death-toll estimate of war-torn Syria has reached a new high. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 321,000 people are confirmed dead as a result of the war, while a further 145,000 are still missing.
Sense of false pride
While external powers are responsible for many of these deaths, much of the carnage has been meted out by Muslims against their fellow Muslims.
The sense of false pride generated by the probable conversion of a Hollywood actress is, perhaps, an escape from the grand shame of a bloodbath being perpetuated by Muslims against their own brethren.
But it is more complex than this.
The issue is far more telling than that of Lohan’s faith and is a repeat of previous such collective jubilation and sense of ‘Islamic pride’ wrought by the marriage of Arab-British lawyer, Amal Alamuddin to Hollywood celebrity, George Clooney.
Although Amal Clooney refused to investigate Israeli war crimes in Gaza — possibly to avert an uncomfortable situation for her husband considering his strong Hollywood ties — Arabs continued to celebrate her as if her marriage to the famous actor is a badge of honour and a validation for an entire culture.
Sadly though, the opposite is true.
Such hype over inane situations is an indication of a greater ailment — the continuing western cultural hegemony over Muslim nations.
The issue is not that of religion. Far from being a vanishing religion, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world — the only religion growing faster than the world’s population, and one which is slated to be the largest in the world by 2070.
Hence, the enthusiasm over Lohan’s possible conversion should be entirely removed from the religious component of the discussion.
Thousands of such conversions are reported in Africa, South America and Asia annually; numbers that receive little cultural and media attention in Arab and Muslim countries.
Neither is it an issue of celebrity Muslims per se, for there are many famous black entertainers who are also Muslims, yet they rarely register on Arab and Muslim media radars as earth-shattering events.
While racism might play a role, it is not the dominant factor. The possible conversion of a western, white Hollywood actress is an entirely different story, simply because culture, status and race are the most telling representations of western cultural hegemony. A conversion of this calibre is celebrated as if a symbolic defeat of the very system that has demonised Arab and Muslim culture for generations.
Yet in the process of conjuring up this false sense of cultural triumph, Muslims, in fact, further feed into their own unfortunate sense of inferiority, one that is rooted in hundreds of years of slavery, colonisation, neocolonialism and military occupation.
In his important work, ‘The Prison Notebooks’, Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, speaks at length about the relationship between culture and power. He defines cultural hegemony as the unquestioned rule of an idea, of a person or an entity.
Unlike military domination, cultural hegemony requires consent, which is often achieved through certain tools of cultural manipulation and control. What is brilliantly malicious about cultural hegemony is that people embrace their own subjugation through the process of social conformity, achieved via literature, language and such institutions as Hollywood and its celebrities.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman deconstruct how conformity is achieved in the United States in their influential book, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, explaining that through a number of media ‘filters’, Americans are sold the misleading idea of the moral infallibility of their own government.
This is how the idea of American exceptionalism has been nurtured throughout the years. It is neither ‘flatly false’, says Chomsky, nor uniquely American, for every empire in the past has always cloaked its bloody actions under the guise of moral exceptionalism.
Long, tragic history
The relationship between cultural domination and military control is itself rooted in a long, tragic history.
The late professor Edward Said’s critique of ‘The Arab Mind’, by cultural anthropologist, Raphael Patai, proved more relevant long after Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ was published.
Patai’s book — a reductionist study of Arab culture and psychology published in 1973 — became “the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour” prior to and during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Recommended by Said as a ‘doorstop’, the book discussed at length Arab vulnerability to sexual humiliation, a notion that was systematically exploited by American prison guards and interrogators in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2004.
While Lohan has the right to convert, the false sense of cultural triumph among many Muslims is certainly unsettling.
If anything, it indicates that while many Muslim countries proudly speak of their independence and celebrate the decolonisation of their countries amid song and dance, a new form of cultural colonisation has replaced the physical one.
The work of Kenyan post-colonial theorist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is pertinent. His ‘Decolonisation of the Mind’ argues that while colonialism attempts to control the world of the colonised — in terms of wealth, labour and resources — it also tries to dominate the ‘mental universe of the colonised’.
‘Economic and political control can never be complete or affective’, he argued, without the mental control, which is acquired through cultural hegemony. “To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.”
Muslims who are feeling validated by mere celebrity interest of their religion ought to ‘decolonise their minds’, first by refusing to define themselves and their relationships to the world through the West and its ever-sinister tools of cultural hegemony.