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.