When Terry Holdbrooks Jr. converted to Islam in 2003, he was inundated with death threats and labelled a "race traitor".

If a religious conversion ever deserves to be admired, Holdbrooks' conversion does, and not because Islam has "won" yet another convert, but because the new convert was assigned the very rule of subjugating his Muslim prisoners.

Yes, Terry Holdbrooks was a US army employee entrusted with guarding Guantanamo detainees. The Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo, held for years without due process and tortured in violation of the most basic tenants of human rights and international law, mostly subsisted on faith.

I had the pleasure of meeting one of the freed prisoners in 2013 during a brief stay in Qatar. Torture had partially impaired his mental faculty, yet when he led a group of men in prayer, he recited verses from the Quran in impeccable language and melodic harmony.

The faith of these prisoners had awakened something in Holdbrooks, who has toured the country dressed in traditional Muslim garb, conveying to audiences the "truth about Gitmo".

Of course, this is not about Islam as a religion, but the power of faith to cross fences, prison bars and unite people around ideas that are vastly more complex and meaningful than that of military domination.

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Despite its profundity, the story of Holdbrooks' conversion to the religion of his prisoners only received scant mention in the media, and in Arabic media in particular.

The issue is not that of religion. Far from being a vanishing religion, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

Lindsay Lohan's interest in Islam, however, has been an obligatory media staple for months. The actress of The Mean Girls, Freaky Friday and a host of not-so-family-friendly movies is hailed by Arab and Muslim media and numerous social media users as if some kind of a cultural and religion saviour.

Lohan's interest and possible conversion to Islam has branched into all sorts of areas of discussion. Like Holdbrooks, she is also branded as if a "race traitor", and has been, according to her own depiction, "racially profiled" during a recent trip to the United States.

Conflating between race and religion is quite common in western, especially American, society. Let aside the fact that one cannot change his race, however hard he or she tries, Christianity itself was born in the Middle East region. But it seems that cultural appropriation has, at least in the minds of some, foolishly designated certain religions to be western and other religions to be "ethnic", "coloured" and "foreign".

While Lohan is still making up her mind about whether to join the Muslim faith or not, she recently announced that she will be launching a new fashion line.

The announcement on Instagram was accompanied by a photo in which the actress was covering her head and part of her face with a crystal-embellished scarf. Many, including some in the media, are deducing that the fashion line is that of the modest, Muslim variety.

Concurrently, a most recent death toll estimate of war-torn Syria has reached a new high, and a new moral low. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 321,000 people are confirmed dead as a result of the war, while a further 145,000 are still missing.

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While outside powers are responsible for many of these deaths, much of the carnage has been meted out by Muslims against their fellow Muslims.

The sense of false pride generated by the probable conversion of a Hollywood actress is, perhaps, an escape from the grand shame of a bloodbath being perpetuated by Muslims against their own brethren.

But it is more complex than this.

The issue is far more telling than that of Lohan's faith and is a repeat of previous collective jubilation wrought by the marriage of Arab-British lawyer, Amal Alamuddin to one Hollywood celebrity George Clooney.

Although Amal Clooney refused to investigate Israeli war crimes in Gaza - presumably to avoid creating an uncomfortable situation for her husband considering his strong Hollywood ties - Arabs continued to celebrate her as if her marriage to the famous actor is a badge of honour and a validation for a whole culture.

Sadly, the opposite is true. Such hype over inane occurrences is an indication of a greater ailment, the continuing western cultural hegemony over Muslim nations.

The issue is not that of religion. Far from being a vanishing religion, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, the only religion growing faster than the world's population, and one which is scheduled to be the largest in the world by 2070. These are some of the outcomes of a thorough demographic analysis conducted recently by the US-based Pew Research Center.

So, the enthusiasm over Lohan's possible conversion - like the intrigue created by Angelina Jolie wearing a hijab during a visit to a refugee camp - should be entirely removed from the religious component of the discussion.

Thousands of such conversions are reported in Africa, South America and Asia each year; numbers that receive little cultural or media attention in Arab and Muslim countries.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, the only religion growing faster than the world's population [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

Neither is it an issue of celebrity Muslims per se, for there are many famous black entertainers who are Muslims, some even devout Muslims. They rarely register on Arab and Muslim media radars as earth-shattering events.

While racism might play a role, it is not the dominant factor.

The possible conversion of a white western, Hollywood actress is a whole different story. For these aspects - cultural, status and race - are the most manifest representation of western, cultural hegemony. A conversion of this calibre is celebrated as if a symbolic defeat of the very system that has demonized Arab and Muslim culture for generations.

In other words, the conversion of Lindsay Lohan would be measured against the resentment Muslims hold against western tools of military subjugation, political domination and cultural hegemony.

Yet in the process of conjuring up this false sense of cultural triumph, Muslims, in fact, further feed into their own unfortunate sense of inferiority, one that is rooted in hundreds of years of slavery, colonisation, neocolonialism and military occupation intervention.

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In his important work, The Prison Notebooks, Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci speaks at length about the relationship between culture and power. He defines cultural hegemony as the unquestioned rule of an idea, of a person or an entity.

Unlike military domination, cultural hegemony requires consent, and that consent is often achieved through certain tools of cultural manipulation and control. What is brilliantly malicious about cultural hegemony is that people embrace their own subjugation through the process of social conformity, achieved via literature, language and such institutions as Hollywood and its celebrities.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman deconstruct how political conformity is achieved in the United States in their influential book, Manufacturing Consent. Through a number of media "filters", Americans are sold the misleading idea of the moral infallibility of their own government.

This is how the idea of American exceptionalism has been nurtured throughout the years. Not only is it "flatly false", says Chomsky, but it is not uniquely American either, for every empire in the past has always cloaked its bloody actions under the guise of moral exceptionalism.

The relationship between cultural domination and military control is itself rooted in a long, tragic history. The late professor Edward Said's critique of The Arab Mind, by cultural anthropologist, Raphael Patai, proved more relevant long after Said's book Orientalism was published.

Patai's The Arab Mind - a reductionist study of Arab culture and psychology published in 1973 - became "the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour" prior and during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Patai's book - recommended by Said as a "doorstop" - discussed at length Arab vulnerability to sexual humiliation, a notion that was systematically exploited by American prison guards and interrogators in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2004.

This is why Holdbrooks' conversion would have been a more poignant premise of a meaningful discussion, as opposed to Lindsay Lohan's personal quest for spiritual fulfilment.

While Lohan has the right to convert, the false sense of cultural triumph among many Muslims is certainly unsettling, if not outright embarrassing.

If anything, it indicates that while many Muslim countries proudly speak of their independence and celebrate the decolonisation of their countries amid song and dance, a new form of cultural colonisation has replaced the physical one.

The work of Kenyan postcolonial theorist, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is particularity paramount. His Decolonising of the Mind argued that while colonialism attempts to control the world of the colonised - in terms of wealth, labour and resources - it also tries to dominate the "mental universe of the colonised" as well.

"Economic and political control can never be complete or affective," he argued, without the mental control, which is acquired through cultural hegemony.


"To control a people's culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others."

While Muslim countries celebrate the decolonisation, a new form of cultural colonisation has replaced the physical one [AP]

The sad fact is that, while many Muslims are eagerly anticipating the final verdict on Lohan's conversion as if the act itself is a cause celebre, they are, in fact, making a collective judgment using the very tools handed to them by the West, through this form of mental colonisation. They are oblivious victims of cultural hegemony.

If Lohan, or anyone else, truly wants to appreciate the Islamic faith, a religion that has appealed to the poor, the slaves and disenfranchised throughout history, and has withstood hundreds of years of colonisation and oppression, she ought to study the relationship between faith and resistance in Gaza, between faith and hope among Syrian refugees, and between faith and liberation in Algeria.

Finding a common ground between true Islam and Hollywood is certainly doomed to fail, for they both represent values that stand at the extreme opposites of one another.

As for Muslims who are feeling validated by mere celebrity interest of their religion, they ought to "decolonise their minds", first by refusing to define themselves and relationships to the world through the West and its ever-sinister tools of cultural hegemony.

Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include "Searching Jenin", "The Second Palestinian Intifada" and his latest "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story". His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

Source: Al Jazeera