By Joel Mowbray
This is a story about the Internet’s power to magnify one woman and compel a multibillion dollar corporation to rectify a dubious decision-overnight.
Meet Allyson Rowen Taylor, who lives in a modest four-bedroom house in suburban Los Angeles. Inside, it looks like the photographer from Home and Gardens has just left. Only Taylor’s long, narrow kitchen looks lived in. With vibrant colors and trendy furniture, it would be natural to assume that her driving passion is interior design.
In fact, until 2001, she ran an interior designing company. Yet within weeks of the 9-11 attacks, she “fired” all her clients and dedicated herself full-time to anti-terrorist activism. “After 9-11, I could no longer explain to my clients the difference between 25% down to 75% feather pillow,” she explains. “It all seemed so trivial.”
Now, she is the associate director of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel education and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles.
Every morning, she walks to her living room couch and opens her laptop. She reads blogs and news sites, including Pajamas Media. This past Monday started out the same way, but then she came across something that shocked her. She spotted a brief post on Little Green Footballs that Urban Outfitters was selling keffiyehs-which were made famous by Yasser Arafat-as “anti-war” scarves. Yes, “anti-war” scarves. That’s what Urban Outfitters called them.
While keffiyehs are a staple of Arab wardrobes, the trendy retailer was selling them explicitly for their symbolic significance, as emblems of peace. But this piece of checkered cloth tells a different story. They were “adopted by many of the Palestinians who supported Grand Mufti Amin al-Husayni during the Great Uprising,” according to the Wikipedia entry on keffiyehs. Al-Husayni was one of Hitler’s most important supporters in the Arab world. “Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” and she was involved in “the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson’s Field hijackings.” And so on.
The available imagery of keffiyehs show their symbolic significance to be anything but “anti-war.” (See photos below.)
“Obviously, plenty of people who are not terrorists wear a keffiyeh,” she notes, “but terrorists have turned it into a symbol for their cause.” Why, she wondered, had Urban Outfitters jumped on their bandwagon?
Furious, Taylor phoned Urban Outfitters’ Philadelphia headquarters. A corporate spokesman said that she was the second person to have complained. It was already late in the afternoon on the east coast. She knew she needed to do more if she had any hope of getting the retail giant to pull the keffiyehs.
So, as she’s done several times before, Taylor drafted a letter that expressed her concerns-and minced no words. “[The keffiyeh] is also the scarf used to cover faces and hide one’s identity by suicide bombers and terrorists around the world,” she wrote. “This scarf is not ‘anti war,’ but anti-America and anti-Israel. It is a symbol of hatred, and when this scarf is worn at protests it is usually accompanied by signs calling for the end of Israel, and death to the ‘Zionist’ entity.”
She went to the Urban Outfitters corporate web site, found the e-mail addresses of the CEO and the entire board of directors, and sent her letter individually to each one.
Her e-mails went out Monday evening, long after business closed on the colder coast. The next morning, she was surprised to find in her inbox an e-mail from Richard Hayne, Urban Outfitters’ CEO. “I was expecting to get an auto-response,” Taylor says. “I thought I was going to be getting back to my fight in the morning.”
Instead, she received a personal, polite e-mail from Hayne himself, apologizing to her and informing her that Urban Outfitters was removing the item immediately. Sure enough, any attempts to click on the page containing the keffiyehs were redirected to the product page for a satchel.
By listening to Taylor, Urban Outfitters may have avoided a costly flap.
For its part, Urban Outfitters seems to be hoping that the issue just fades away. I e-mailed Hayne and did not receive a response. The retailer has not put out a statement explaining its decision.
Aside from Hayne’s e-mail to Taylor, the only stated reason was this terse note on the Urban Outfitters’ web site: “Due to the sensitive nature of this item we will no longer offer it for sale,” a notice on the Web site said. “We apologize if we offended anyone. This was by no means our intention.”
Taylor is understandably excited about her victory, but more for what it represents in the Internet era. “This victory is important because it shows that we all can have a voice,” she says. “This victory proves that when a large organization is doing something egregious, that when they are educated, changes can occur.”
It is a small, symbolic victory, but floods are made up of many droplets. And, thanks to the web, they can gather and rush downhill. Urban Outfitters was smart to get out of this quickly. In her kitchen, on her laptop, Allyson Taylor is working to make sure the next offender jumps as quickly.
Joel Mowbray ([email protected]) is the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America’s Security.