Convert Orientalists

From the cover of Edward Said's "Orientalism". Vintage 1978.

What really annoys me lately are “Convert Orientalists”. Yes, you heard right. While Edward Said’s book on Orientalism is mainly about colonialism and Western aggression toward the so-called “Orientals”, I think his discourse about Western view on the “Other” is useful to think about how we sometimes reduce complex cultures to a set of signs—language (words, expressions) and material culture (food, clothing, music, artifacts). When I label someone as an “Orientalist”, I do not mean those who appreciate and learn from other cultures; I am referring to those who (usually unknowingly) exoticize a group of people.

We sometimes see non-Muslim girls playfully done a hijab to imitate the “exotic harem” they see in movies. We may also have seen Western women dress as belly dancer or genies for Halloween—and let’s not forget the ridiculous amount of eye makeup as part of their costume! This mimicry is not surprising at all with the media constantly exoticizing the “Orient”. What is surprising is how many new converts develop a hype over Arab and South Asian culture. One of my white European convert friends was telling me how badly she wanted harem pants. What? Harem pants? Like in Aladdin? What is wrong with regular ol’ jeans?! A second friend constantly updates her facebook status with “romantic” phrases in Arabic—sometimes even obsessing over a single word because “it’s too beautiful for even her unworthy eyes to read”. Fine, so you like the sound of Arabic. I get that. Some languages just sound more poetic or harmonious than others. Fine. A third white American convert took a facebook quiz telling her what “kind” of Arab she was. How can you reduce a race of people to a quiz? Imagine if the quiz said “What kind of Black are you?” or “What kind of Jew are you?” Clearly, the real differences between groups of people are not ones that can be captured in multiple choice questionnaires!

What’s my beef with this? It’s just weird!

Again, it’s a good thing to appreciate other cultures. When individuals, however, begin to forget their own identity by adopt things that slowly replace their unique history and heritage, then they need a reality check. I have been guilty of making this kind of mistake—we all have. But it’s important to constantly be aware of how dumb it looks to pretend to be someone you are not.

Islam is a culture of its own; it’s a unique lifestyle that has developed from Muslims’ belief that Allah has revealed to them what is haraam and halal (forbidden and acceptable). Muslims follow a specific dress code, a restricted diet, follow Islamic propriety when dealing with the opposite sex, and recite the Qur’an in Arabic. Because of these unique qualities of the ummah (community), I understand why some would call Islam a distinct culture. Under the culture of Islam, however, we cannot forget to express ourselves through our individual material culture—music, foods, language, clothing. Islam is not the “Orient”, and the “Orient” is not Islam. Islam is for mankind and what makes it rich is that it offers the space for people to remain true to themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Convert Orientalists

  1. Hi

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, your last few words ‘remain true to themselves’ I believe is the exact problem. I understand Islam since many people I know are Muslims and I believe Islam is or has not yet been fully understood here in the west.

  2. Hi and thanks for reading and commenting on my post.

    As you said, remaining true to oneself can be difficult in this day and age when we are constantly encountering people of other faiths, cultures, backgrounds. This is especially the case with converts to religions that have been branded by a certain ethnic group.

    Most converts have to undergo a Lacanian mirror stage, if you will, in order to figure out who they are all over again. I’ve had converts tell me that they literally look in the mirror and ask “who the heck am I?” And it has been something I have experienced myself. It can be confusing, which is why I understand how many converts prefer to romanticize the “Otherness” associated with Islam instead of come to terms with the two identities. The problem is that romance fades; and when the hype is gone, what is left? Converts (myself included) need to work on developing stronger roots in their own traditions, cultures AND Islam.

    My hope is that converts really try to remain true to their ethnic and cultural roots (while acknowledging Islamic boundaries) so that the “West” can begin to understand the universality of Islam—so that it no longer is an “Other” religion, but a religion very much at home in the “West”.

    Salams (Peace)

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