When Will the Fashion World Stop Insulting Islam?
NOW I see why Theo van Gogh just had to be slaughtered. It's just stunning that Lagerfeld made it out alive!
Defiling Islam becomes a cash-making art form
By Antoine Faisal, Aramica, 27 October 2005. English Language.
Recently, I met up with media colleagues for dinner in Brooklyn. It wasn't long before the conversation turned to Arabic calligraphy, which one of my companions, Samantha, said was embossed on a leather handbag she had just bought.
Eager to know what the elaborate writing signified, Samantha invited her fellow diners to her home nearby so that I could translate the calligraphy.
I took one look and was shocked to read the words 'Allah' and 'Mohammed' on the purse, and although I wasn't able to decipher the entire verse, I was instinctively certain it was taken from the Koran. I am not a Muslim but my instincts also told me that such holy verses should not be featured on a fashion accessory.
To her credit, Samantha, who happens to be Jewish, was equally dismayed and vowed to discard the purse in spite of its spanking new status. She felt strongly that the use of holy verses on such products was insulting to Muslims and strongly encouraged me to pursue the case with the maker, Brooklyn Industries.
Aramica began by bringing up the company's website on screen, where the offending bags, which come in various sizes and colors, were proudly displayed.
The website also revealed that Brooklyn Industries is owned by a husband-and-wife partnership. Vahap Avsar and Lexy Funk grew their company from small beginnings and "opened their first retail store in May 2000." Today, they own six stores.
Avsar, who is a Turkish-born New Yorker, is not only a successful businessman but also an artist, so it isn't surprising that he seeks to decorate the leather handbags his company manufacturers with new and eye-catching designs.
What is surprising, though – rather, outrageous – is that Avsar, chose a sura (chapter of the Koran) from Islam's Holy Book to calligraphically enhance his fashion accessories and, even worse, proceeded to alter the sacred text.
It will be patently obvious to all our readers, regardless of their beliefs, that such misuse of religious texts is not only crass but also irreverent, displaying a complete disregard for the sensitivities of believers – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Parsee.
Let's face it. Brooklyn Industries' leather handbags are available to all and sundry able to come up with their price tag. In this case, there is nothing preventing those bags from gracing the arms of anyone from lawyers, teachers and shop assistants to drag artists, call girls and drug dealers.
For instance, any devout person would be horrified when faced with the image of their favorite saint or avatar, or the sayings of Jesus or Buddha leaping out at them from a bag stuffed with heroine or crack.
Conversely, most Jews would be up-in-arms if the swastika became a fashion logo and both Jews and African-Americans would be affronted by the sight of the Klan's burning crosses worn proudly on T-shirts and rightly so.
But for many Moslems this type of insult goes much deeper for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Koran is considered by Muslims to be the word of Allah directly revealed to his prophet Mohammed, and, as such, its verses are immutable. In other words, they cannot be changed by anyone except the Creator himself.
As a self-ascribed Muslim, Avsar should have been well aware of this injunction, but when asked, he admitted that his company had removed the word 'Allah' from designs on some of its merchandise.
"We did take out the word 'Allah' because we did not want to be controversial," said Avsar, attempting to justify his decision by insisting that many of those who bought the bags from his company's stores were Muslims.
However, on all the bags shown on the manufacturer's website the word 'Allah' can be seen distinctly, which indicates there are other designs which are displayed prominently on the site.
"We are not trying to be political or religious, but we wanted to promote something that is beautiful from our culture, so that is where we're coming from," he added.
Okay. So let's suppose for a moment that we buy Avsar's reasoning when it comes to the removal of the word 'Allah' along with his stated motive for producing the bags: he wanted to promote a beautiful aspect of the Islamic culture.
Let's imagine that Avsar was completely ignorant regarding the immutability of the Koran. Did he also not realize that a woman's handbag is not a canvas to be used for promoting the word of God?
Put simply, handbags accompany their owners wherever they go and that includes restrooms, where they are often put down on the floor. On this point, we consulted an imam for his advice.
Sheikh Hamad Chebli of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, Monmouth County, was appalled not only that handbags carried Holy verses for the reasons mentioned above, but also that manufacturers sought to profit from the word of God. In the latter regard, he quoted from chapter 2 of the Koran, as follows:
Woe then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say: This is from Allah, so that they may take for it a small price; therefore, woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn (Surah Al-Baqara, verse 79).
It's forbidden to write holy verses on underwear, shoes and clothing, he said, but putting them on women's bags is even worse.
"It is a desecration to take such an item with Holy Scriptures written on it, into a bathroom," he said, going on to explain the prohibition against menstruating women touching the Holy Koran or even entering a mosque.
Those who jump to the conclusion that this taboo is exclusive to Islam would be wrong. It is inherent in Judaism as well. Menstruating Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden from praying, touching the Torah or attending the synagogue and have to undergo a ritual bath or mikvah before they are once again allowed to do so.
It is true that until recent times the more secular among us might not have been aware of these aspects of Islam, but given the rumpus over accounts from former Guantanamo detainees, reporting that female intelligence agents dressed as prostitutes humiliating prisoners by smearing them with fake menstrual blood, this issue has received considerable attention recently.
Moreover, only cave dwellers or the occupants of tree houses could have avoided the Newsweek reports – which were later retracted – of the Koran being flushed down the toilet by U.S. guards, or the brouhaha that the story triggered in almost every Muslim country around the world.
Then there was the Dutch movie, "Submission," which aired on television and showed images of the opening lines of the Koran scrawled across the naked body of a woman. The ensuing furor that ended in tragedy not only for the film's maker but also for the entire Muslim community in the Netherlands furthered the level of nervousness and suspicion.
Nobody, however, is suggesting that Brooklyn Industries' accidental or willful irreverence is on a par with this obscenity, or has any equivalence at all, but these very public incidents which show the sensitivities of Muslims should have by now seeped into everyone's subconscious, including the owners of this company.
During our telephone conversation, Avsar admitted that he did not speak Arabic and agreed that his basic design had been copied from calligraphy which reportedly adorns the Yildizlar Palace, the home of a former Turkish sultan.
Indeed, few Turks understand Arabic ever since Mustafa Kemal 'Ataturk' abolished the Arabic script, which he said was too difficult to learn, and replaced it with Roman lettering. In his fervor to drag his country kicking and screaming into the 20th century, Ataturk, further, banned the hijab, the headscarf and the fez and throughout his life promoted the secularization of his country.
Nevertheless, Avsar does not claim ignorance as to the calligraphy's meaning. He freely admits that he showed the proposed designs to Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors prior to stamping the bags. "They read it and pointed out the 'Allah' part, so I took it out," he said.
Nevertheless, Aramica was inclined to give Avsar the benefit of the doubt until we asked if he planned to continue to produce this design.
Aramica asked: Do you plan to keep this design in production?
Avsar responded: We just made 100 of them and they are almost sold out again, you are not the only one that has asked this. I do not want to upset anybody. Honestly, when I made this design, everybody was scared, everybody is hiding and people are scared to say they are from Turkey, Lebanon or wherever. I thought, by making this, I would probably contribute a little bit more tolerance."
Noble sentiments indeed, but there is one thing important missing from the above response: The owner of Brooklyn Industries, now aware of just how offensive these bags are, omitted to say he would immediately withdraw the offending item from the market. Instead, he says, "they are almost sold out," but what about those still bags still being advertised on the company's website and those left on the shelves of their own shops?
Avsar's reticence to recall a few of his company's products, thus incurring the loss of a few thousand dollars, is surely evidence that he isn't taking the matter seriously enough.
Sheikh Chebli explained that even if a verse from the Koran, or a portion of it, was duplicated on an acceptable item, it should always be accompanied by the word sura and the number of the appropriate verse. He then advised us to put the matter before the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which previously has taken up similar issues.
Indeed, it was CAIR, which persuaded Nike in 1997 to withdraw 38,000 pairs of sneakers from the market because symbols that closely resembled 'Allah' written in Arabic were featured on their heels. Nike eventually apologized to Muslims and agreed to build two schools for the Muslim community at sites recommended by CAIR.
A spokesman from CAIR later conceded that Nike's error was made out of its ignorance concerning the Islamic faith and not inspired by an intentional wish to offend Muslims.
In 2000, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC) protested about the sale of a pair of pink jeans decorated with verses from the Koran and the word 'Allah' on sale in a mall.
And in 1994, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld apologized to Muslims for using a phrase from the Koran embroidered on some of his haute couture gowns. When he was alerted of his faux pas, the dresses were immediately destroyed.
The difference between the owner of Brooklyn Industries and Karl Lagerfeld is striking not only because Lagerfeld instructed his designs to be destroyed while Avsar is apparently clinging to his, but also that Avsar, unlike Lagerfeld, is a Muslim and, thus, has no excuse for preferring to make a buck over doing the right thing.
It would have been remiss of us not to have challenged Brooklyn Industries on its misguided approach or not to afford its owner the opportunity of putting forward his side of the story. And we are pleased that we went ahead.
The types of disrespectful behavior that Brooklyn Industries, Nike and Lagerfeld have displayed towards Islam and Muslims, may or may not have been intentional and, depending on one's personal perspective, may or may not be earth-shattering in the great scheme of things.
But one thing is sure, unless these type of behavior is highlighted and the error of the perpetrators' ways driven home, then these incidents will come to signify the first steps on a slippery slope.
It's interesting that while a young Jewish woman could clearly see the innate wrong in using Holy words to sell purses, the distasteful items are still up on his company's website awaiting customers, days after we first spoke to the co-owner of Brooklyn Industries.
There is only one conclusion we can form. As far as Brooklyn Industries is concerned, money talks loudest, and if anyone takes offense at its design, then tough!
This article appeared in Edition 193 of Voices That Must Be Heard.