Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (Su’ad Khabeer, 2016)

Eritrea / Colonia Italiana – Muslim brotherhood PPC Military Post to Italy 1935 Photo: Ebay

Su’ad Khabeer’s Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US. Confronted by pervasive stereotypes and increased prejudice in post-9/11 America, the group of Muslims and their practices she calls “Muslim Cool” resist and contest through hip hop and their Blackness the hegemonic ethno-religious norms of South Asian and Arab Muslim communities and White American normativity. According to Khabeer, this was a way for Muslims to redefine themselves through the internet and artistic practices such as music against stigmas of old Islamist rhetorics. Khabeer shows us how “Muslim Cool” transcends and contests current racism in the US but she also illustrates how this coolness is heavily distracted or distorted by pop culture.

I am interested in how Khabeer’s ethnography zeroes in on religious aesthetics and how these aesthetics countervail dominant politics. I note how Khabeer’s interlocutors are mostly artists who seek to destroy clichés about Muslims, pointing out how Islamic identity has been hijacked by a number of actors such as opinion leaders, researchers and journalists. Muslim artists have been a resource to provide alternative ways of thinking about identity, belonging and representation while trying to subvert narratives about Muslims as foreign, violent and national threat. In so doing, they propose new subjectivities through their experiences, framing Islam outside staid binary visions.

What makes this ethnography compelling is how it also recuperates the haram character of hip hop by historicizing it in “Afrodiasporic Islamic genealogy”. Hip hop music is often seen as haram because of the content of the lyrics and the presence of sexual suggestiveness. We know from our studies of literature, however, that Muslim culture is rife with erotic poetry such as Nasib. While hip hop has undeniable subaltern roots, an outside observer can argue that it has significantly shaped Western culture that it is now perceived as the dominant culture, able to predatorily appropriate anything from the fashion of the poor to criminal deviance for marketability.

My questions therefore are: Why do artists feel a form of moral duty that leads them to unveil their Muslim identities and contest negative images of Islam only to fall into another cliché? Can this ethnography and the culture it immerses in be as compelling if it does not react to the challenge of redefining of Muslim identity after stereotypical (Orientalist, Extremists) portrayals of Islam?

Reading this book led me to think that Anthropologists of Islam need to be unburdened by the push for Muslim multicultural heritage.

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