East and West
The occident and the orient, the west and the east, us against them. Nowhere is this reality better explained than in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Published in 1978, Said paints an incredibly vivid image and brings to life a detailed history whilst drawing on his own life, “a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.” 1
His works changed the course of academia and uncovered what was swept under the rug for many years. The distinction that those from the Occident make about the Orient is intentional, serves a self-fulfilling purpose and seeks to undermine and subdue the exotic east. Civilisation lies in the west alone and it is the duty of the Occident to educate and guide the Orient. This is a short and tiny sliver of what Said covers but what lies underneath this continental arrogance is an inherent belief that the Orient is exotic, a place reserved for short term pleasure without structure, order or civility. Those born in the east are met with eyes full of wonder and intrigue as if they’ve come from a land that is only accessible on paper and paintings from yonder. Those from the West see it as their duty to impart their culture and knowledge in an attempt to ‘civilise’ (westernise) the savages that roam these lands, a “place of unbridled sensuality, wilful violence and extreme emotions.” 2
How do those, who migrate from the East to the West, adapt to a new culture that is seemingly more structured, better-founded and has more opportunity? As an Ahmadi Muslim with Pakistani heritage, there’s an ongoing struggle to pinpoint my own identity. A struggle that many go through but, one more prominent amongst young adults.
Growing up in the U.K., staying close to your cultural roots whilst trying to fit in and adapt, is a dilemma that begins quite early on, generally triggered by experiences at school. You come to realise why, as you get older, your acceptance comes with a healthy dose of distance which further complicates the desire to have an identity; you are British but not really British. The second spanner in the works is the religious identity. Parents and family encourage you to stay close to your religion and faith, gain a better understanding of what Islam teaches and the belief system, how to conduct yourself etc. What we aren’t prepared for, during our early teens, is silent opposition, distancing, short and abrupt interactions, and the odd verbal abuse. It takes some time to realise that the Islam we learn is the opposite to the version of Islam that is learnt by the majority of those who aren’t Muslim. The third ingredient that is difficult to fuse is the Pakistani identity, this time rejected by those in Pakistan and those who spent the majority of their lives in Pakistan and migrated to the West later. In the eyes of the elders or the Pakistani passport holders, we are British, not Pakistani. Our clothes, language, the way we carry ourselves is not Pakistani enough.
Reconciling these parts of the whole is, as said earlier, a struggle, mostly an inner struggle. Yes, it starts off as a problem of perception by those around you but develops into an issue of self-perception. So, what guidance or teaching is there when it comes to dealing with this struggle of identity? How can Muslims, with an Eastern background living in the West, reconcile these differences?
O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and subtribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware. 3
What is apparent is the need for social integration, allowing us to better understand each other which alleviates, somewhat, the task of identifying oneself.
And worship Allah and associate nought with Him and show kindness to parents and kindred and orphans and the needy and to the neighbour who is a kinsman and to the neighbour who is a stranger and the companion by your side and the wayfarer and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the arrogant and the boastful.” 4
When beliefs, presupposed or not, and traditions are weighed up against actions, the latter will leave a bigger impact. This is the essence of the teaching within Islam:
It is narrated that once an individual visited Hazrat Imam Jaffar Sadiq (may Allah be pleased with him) and asked: “I am leaving to go and preach, please tell me something I can do that will prove to be helpful in my effort to preach my religion.” The response given by Imam Jaffar (may Allah be pleased with him) served to cover the [essence of the] entire faith; he said: “Make every effort to avoid using your tongue to preach your religion.” 5
There is, no doubt, that identifying one’s identity can be a long, arduous struggle made worse by the outward influences and perceptions of those whom we have no control over. What is within our power and control, is how we seek to change and correct the portrayal of our identity.
Blog based on Voice of Islam Show 6
- Between Worlds, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2002) pp. 556–57
- The Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Hujurat, Verse 14. (49:14)
- The Holy Qur’an, Surah An-Nisa, Verse 37. (4:37)