Americans Are Afraid of Islam. But They Also Buy Lots of Islamic Art.

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For many Americans, Islam is a foreign — if not frightening — religion. A majority see Islam as incompatible with American values, and some have even confused algebraic equations with terrorist plots. Prejudice and discrimination targeting Muslims has increased in the last year, and across the U.S. in recent weeks, more and more Muslims have been targeted — sometimes violently — for their faith.

Given many Americans’ fear of Islam and the current high levels of Islamophobia, it is perhaps surprising to see influences of Islamic art in more Americans’ outfits, dinner tables, and living rooms. In recent months, Islamic artistic patterns have made their way into clothing and housewares sold at quintessentially American stores like Target. In particular, we’ve noticed that Islamic geometric patterns from places like North Africa have become especially prevalent in American clothing and big box stores.

Here we highlight some examples of Islamic geometric patterns that can be found on items ranging from placemats to pencil skirts, and juxtapose them with works of art from museums and the Muslim-majority world to show their similarities.

Where are we seeing influences of Islamic art?

1. On clothing sold at Banana Republic.

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Banana Republic’s spring 2016 clothing line features a blue and green pattern that appears on pencil skirts, pants, and shorts. The design’s series of colorful circles, made up of small blocks of color, resembles traditional mosaics of North Africa.

In an Islamic context, this mosaic pattern usually adorns the halls of grand courts or beautiful mosques. The images below are from the Met’s reproduction of a Moroccan court, the Grand Mosque of Paris, which is designed in the Mudejar style, and the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. See the similarity?

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2. On even more clothing from Banana Republic.

Clothing from Banana also features these star-like patterns.

Interconnected star motifs like these are common in Islamic art, and have symbolic religious meaning depending on their number of points. The eight-pointed star, or khatam in Arabic, is particularly prominent. A variation of it is used in the tan, blue, and green dress from Banana Republic above.

3. On this Target placemat.

This placemat, from Target’s Threshold line, features the star motif in beautiful shades of blue and green, much like zellige “tile” designs from Morocco.

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4. On all these bags from Lulu Dharma.

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The patterns on these handbags from Lulu Dharma are nearly identical to the “Moresque” mosaic patterns found in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The Alhambra was completed in the 1300s when southern Spain was under Muslim rule. The image below, accessed from the New York Public Library’s website, features the numerous mosaic patterns that are mimicked in the Lulu Dharma totes.

5. On this candle holder sold at Nordstrom Rack.

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This golden candle bears another common Islamic star motif. We saw it sold in the store, Nordstrom Rack, during the Christmas season in 2015. Its design mimics tiling on the walls of the Alhambra palace.

Blurred Lines

The incorporation of Islamic art into American consumer goods raises important questions about the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Is it ok to wear or purchase these designs without knowing their origin, and while potentially favoring discriminatory policies that target the group who originated these artistic styles? Significant minorities of Americans have expressed support for profiling and surveilling Muslims, and even favored a ban on Muslim immigration.

None of these products are advertised as “Islamic.” For the most part, the retailers give them generic descriptions like “Mosaic” or “Kaleidoscope.” Only a few items, like the “Alhambra” bag from Lulu Dharma, give away their Islamic or Middle Eastern association.

It’s ironic that in a time of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric, we’re seeing more and more Islamic art being bought and even worn by Americans. Most are likely unaware that the patterns they are purchasing originated in an Islamic context, out of a culture that many Americans only associate with violence and war.

But if and when they do recognize the source of this year’s stylish geometric designs, it might prompt a moment of reflection and reevaluation, a realization that “Islam” isn’t quite as “incompatible” with their American way of life as they thought.

Have you seen other examples of Islamic geometric art on American clothing or housewares? Share your photos with us by tagging us on Twitter (@bridgeinit)!

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