Politics

Keffiyeh Chic and Symbolic Meanings

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The blogosphere can cough up a lot of interesting controversies. This week’s revolved around a Dunkin Donuts’ online ad featuring Rachel Ray in a scarf similar to the Arab keffiyeh which has come to symbolize Palestinian militantism. The company pulled the spot after conservative commentators, most notably Michelle Malkin, harshly criticized Ray’s clothing choice, claiming the scarf was a symbolic support of terrorism.

Well, Malkin and others are correct that the keffiyeh has become a radicalized symbol and it wouldn’t be going too far to say it is at least as offensive a symbol as, say, the Confederate battle flag. But unlike the Confederate flag, the keffiyeh is not so easily identified. I, for one, did not recognize Rachel Ray’s scarf as anything other than a black-and-white scarf. And not even Malkin is accusing Ray or Dunkin Donuts of supporting radical Palestinian causes. Malkin assumes the parties involved were ignorant of the scarf’s symbolism.

Thing is, keffiyeh-chic has already invaded the mainstream. To me, commercializing this symbol does more to strip it of its meaning than does any offended protest by the likes of Michelle Malkin. Then again, I probably wouldn’t say the same thing about swastikas used as fashion accessories. The difference, I think, is that the keffiyeh is simply not a well-known or well-understood symbol.

Does a symbol lose its power when its wearer is ignorant of its meaning? And are people like Malkin overreacting for political reasons? My first thought was that Malkin is an idiot. But looking into the matter, the symbol is offensive, particularly to Jews. And while some can say the keffiyeh is just a symbol of Palestinian pride, some also say the Confederate flag is nothing more than a symbol of Southern pride.

Symbols are a difficult business because they only mean what people say they mean. Wearing a keffiyeh-like scarf in an ad for an American donut company in no way aids or even gives comforts to Palestinian militantism. Then again, if the keffiyeh is going to be a fashion accessory, people should at least be aware of its meaning and not unwittingly show support for a cause in which they don’t believe. In that sense, Malkin was not wrong for speaking up, even if it seems like a rather shrill complaint about a rather small matter. What do you think?