Tuesday 8 December 2009

Kool in a Keffiyeh?

Last week in church (not my own congregation) my blood ran cold when I saw a young guitarist leading church worship with a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian black and white checked headcovering, draped round his neck.

Why should I have been shocked? After all, the keffiyeh has a long and innocuous history. But in the twentieth century, notably in the 1960s with the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, it became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism and became the trademark symbol Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO.

Leila Khaled, a female member of the terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, adopted the keffiyeh which had been traditionally associated with Arab masculinity to declare her equality with men in the armed struggle for the liberation of “Palestine”.

More recently, the colours in the keffiyeh have become associated with Palestinian political sympathies. The traditional black and white keffiyeh is symbolic of Fatah, while the red and white keffiyeh that once marked Palestinian Marxists is now identified with Hamas. Outside the Middle East, the keffiyeh became popular among those who supported the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

Rhoda Koenig of the British newspaper The Independent declared in 2006 that the keffiyeh had become “a symbol of Islamic militancy”, while Caroline Glick, deputy editor of The Jerusalem Post, has equated the keffiyeh with the Fascist brown shirt. Following complaints in 2007, the American clothing chain Urban Outfitters stopped selling keffiyehs and issued a statement that the company had not intended “to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism”.

So when I saw a young man leading the worship of God with a symbol of terrorism draped round his shoulders, a chill ran down my spine. For a second I saw a gun, not a guitar, in his arms. It may well be that he had no idea that he was wrapped in a potent symbol of terrorism and was simply making a fashion statement but can anyone in their mid-to-late twenties not be aware that this article of clothing was the trademark of probably the greatest terrorist of the second half of the twentieth century.

Am I being a little over the top here? Is the keffiyeh not just a chic fashion item that can easily be divorced from its terrorist associations? Let’s suppose our worship leader had been wearing a sweatshirt blazoned with a fetching portrait of Adolph Hitler… Or Sadam Hussein. Or Osama bin Laden...

All of which raises another question. Should church leaders instruct those who lead the worship to abstain from wearing clothing that symbolises godless ideas, flags up political loyalties, glorifies celebrities or is immodest? In short, should anyone standing in front of a congregation to preach, pray or wear anything that serves to ideologically or morally contradict the words they speak or sing? I think the answer is self evident.

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