Let’s Play Dress-up! The Theme is: Islam and Saudi Arabia
By Andrew Riad
In the beginning of March, a group of high school students in Brussels, Belgium held an “Islam and Saudi Arabia” themed dress down day for their seniors. Seniors came to school wearing abayas, kandooras, headscarves and more. While wearing religious and cultural clothing, the seniors accessorized their “costumes” with suicide belts while imitating the call to prayer while an actual audio clip of the call to prayer played in the background. Afterwards, the principal of the Catholic school stated that this event was not intended to provoke or upset anyone; it was just for entertainment.
The event was labelled as “scandalous,” with several local Belgian news outlets and radio stations calling it a “shame.” Some went to the extent of blaming the teachers because the “students don’t know any better.” However, this is not a “scandalous” event; it is far greater, far more prolific and it delves much deeper than a simple dress down day for graduation. Belgium, as a nation state, is one that colonized. This means that Belgium, as a nation state, was the Orientalist, the colonizer, and when looking at it through a eurocentric lens, the superior . Placing this event into modern-day international affairs is placing Belgium’s history into the present as well. In playing dress up, mocking, and ridiculing traditional Arab clothing, the students were exoticizing, othering, and diminishing a group of people historically and contemporarily deemed lesser than them. This occurs to a group of people that are stigmatized and even feared. This was not an attempt for cultural exploration or coexistence. This is an example of a pillar of supremacy and privilege with hints of ignorance and bliss. Only this time it is not to colonize a group of people that “don’t know better,” but it is to create and mold the narrative and image of a group of people labelled and stigmatized.
Arabic is the fourth most spoken language in Belgium, directly following German, French, and Dutch. And yet it was only in August 2016 that a school in Brussels finally decided, for the first time ever in Belgian educational history, to offer Arabic as a language course. The push for this came about after more than 350,000 Arab-speaking individuals officially resided in the capital. How did this incident in this school located in the capital of Belgium come about?
For something like this dress-down day to occur in a country like Belgium raises a fault much deeper than the students or teachers, and much deeper than just one school. The fault lies in education. When looking into Western versus Eastern educational systems, the latter would go beyond local history and explore histories of the West as well. Growing up, I learned about Russia, the U.S. Civil War, the Cold War, the Seven Years’ War, the transatlantic slave trade, and other Western phenomena. None of these events affected me as an Arab boy living in the Middle East, but in learning this history, I also gained an understanding of international affairs and global dynamics.
We must realize that our secondary commitment, after the primary one to our home countries, is our tie to the world. Knowing about what happened in Russia in the late 18th century may not prove to be beneficial, but it does limit the stereotyping and labelling that could occur in our modern societies. There are people living on the other side of the world who do not know about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until they come to the Middle East––that bewilders me. I understand that it will not affect them since they live so far from the situation, but this example only made me realize that ignorance truly is bliss! This is what is happening in Belgium, as well. Students, youthful and learning, are hidden and sheltered from the other half of the world. Perhaps if they had genuinely explored histories of the East, and Arab culture, this event and dress-down mockery may not have happened at all. Surely they thought it would be amusing given their Western media portraying Western ideologies in shaping a Western image of the perception of the Middle East, Islam and Arabs.
I do not blame the students for not knowing the severity and the sheer disrespect their actions have committed against Islamic and Arab culture, but I do blame them for indulging in their privilege and living in their ignorance, only to promote a further generalized, stigmatized, and highly-inaccurate portrayal of Islam and of the Arab world. I also blame the principal and the school. I blame not just this school but all schools. But I also blame the biggest culprit that has been brewing for years: education, or the lack thereof.