ISIS Halloween Costumes: Bad Taste or Psychologically Cathartic?


Tonight, when Americans open their doors at the sound of “Trick or Treat!” they may be in for a big surprise: a little boy dressed up in a jihadi fighter costume! That’s right, while our planes drop bombs on the real bad guys, our neighborhood children may be dressing up like them. I know that many, Muslim or not, are offended, but I see this Halloween as especially important from a sociological perspective.
First, the usual and necessary disclosures about Halloween: As a Muslim I don’t commend or celebrate a pagan holiday with its roots in worship of the devil and fear of evil spirits. As a Muslim mother I don’t allow my children to wear costumes or go trick-or-treating, for a number of reasons which include not only religious beliefs, but also worry and fear of the times we live in. My children of course, being typically American, never take it lying down. My conversation with them on the days leading up to this year’s Halloween can be read here.
But all day yesterday and today, as I read several reports of this year’s new “genre” of costumes I slowly exited from mother mode or even Muslim mode and started thinking like a sociologist. Halloween costume companies this year are encouraging their customers to really get the crowds buzzing with items like ISIS fighters, Ebola nurses, Hazmat suits and even burka-clad Arab women. WHAT? Is this what we have come to, making fun of our biggest problems? Offending people? Taking serious things lightly? Associating Ebola or war with candy?
Yet when I got over my indignation, it actually made sense. After all, what is Halloween all about? Even in medieval times, Halloween was a psychological way to protect oneself from the evils that lurked about, the costumes were a show of bravado against forces that human beings believed they could not conquer. Yes, there was all the paganism, but if there had been a psychologist in their midst he would have figured out that the masks and the treats stood for something else entirely. A little guy standing up against the big, evil dude, hoping that a brave heart will be enough to save the day.
Today, mankind has all but conquered nature, expelled pagan beliefs and relegated evil spirits and even the devil himself to the pages of story books and scripture. Over time, Halloween has been turned into a worship of materialism and hedonism more than anything else, and those who participate see it as fun. But this year, we may be going back to the roots of Halloween by using it to express our fears. ISIS, Ebola, even Arab women, are now somehow our scariest monsters, and what better way to defeat them in terms of ideology and mental hold than by dressing up as them on Halloween? This holiday is very American, very culturally specific in a way that defies explanation. The costumes people wear are also indicative of their thoughts and fears, in the same way as it was a thousand years ago. Can this be our way of coping? Can this be our way of fighting the bad guys in our minds when we don’t see victory in physical terms at the moment? Right or wrong, as a sociologist, I certainly think it’s worth thinking about.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. She is working towards her Masters in Liberal Arts degree with a concentration in sociology. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi

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