Western Orientalism and its science of Islamology is a very well-studied and understood phenomenon. Edward Said, above all others, did much to highlight the distorting filters through which some of the most widely read Western scholars of Islam. It continues to rear its head in 21st-century neo-imperialist projects, under the guise of liberal interventionism and the resurrection of Modernist rhetoric from the 19th-century.
One would have thought that Muslims, and mostly Western Muslims, would have understood what it means to distort and crudely reduce entire human traditions and cultures into vulgar stereotypes or dismissal of other ideas as pointless and meaningless. Yet Muslims are far too happy to engage in their own form of Occidentalism when engaging with Western traditions.
I would consider my recent sojourn to Istanbul with three of my closest friends, all of whom I would say would essentially describe themselves as 'conservative' or 'traditionalist' (one is a student of Shaykh Haytham Tamim, who is the founder of the Utrujj Foundation), to have been an experiment in challenging Muslim Occidentalist views. What better place than where 'East meets West', where 'old and new', 'traditional and modern' sit side by side (insert your own well-worn cliche); a majority Muslim country, home to the most powerful and long standing Muslim empires and the capital of caliphal administration, now a staunchly secular state.
In one conservation, whilst sitting in our hotel after Maghrib, the discussion moved to 'liberty' and Muslim states. I pointed out that they fail miserabley on that aspect; that they do not leave people alone who is not directly harming anyone or causing any great offence. This, I said, was an ideal from Western traditions and Muslims who lived in Western states should appreciate this liberty (give or take the recent fascination with arresting and harassing people). They weren't about to be arrested everytime they left their front door (or even if they were asleep). The response from one friend was to suggest that my approval of 'liberty' was tantamount to advocating 'binge drinking'. The logic being that because people were free to drink, then they would want to binge drink, and so binge drinking would this become an 'ideal value', as it has in Britain. Whatever the flaws of the argument -- and the point here isn't even about binge drinking, which is a massive problem in Britain -- this isn't critical engagement with another tradition or culture, but is the reduction of these traditions into vulgar forms, where the worst aspects are held as the ideals. It is no different to suggesting that the subjegation of women is an ideal of Islam, because far too many Muslims engage in opressive practices against women in the name of Islam (and that do this shouldn't be denied).
In another conservation, two of my friends peppered their sentences with 'the West' and 'Westerners' in an act distancnig themselves from 'Western' policies, ideas and cultures, as though they resided totally apart from it. I pointed out that both of them were Westerners, who had only ever lived in the West; were only fluent in a Western language (they could speak Urdu/Punjabi/Bengali, but could not read or write it); were educated in Western systems; dressed in Western fashions; had quite Western (and middle class) tastes and would probably never want to live in the Muslim countries of their parents. One friend, who lauds his Pakistani identity and credentials, was unable even to name a single poem written by Iqbal! In any case a lot of Westerners rejected the Iraq War and speak out against Western policies. My Utrujji friend agreed with me (his training under a scholar has made him more circumspect in his pronouncements, although he has always been a thoughtful individual not prone to outbursts like the rest of us). Again, this almost subconscious distinction between themselves and 'the West' was annoying, even depressing. I had to point out to them that their Western lifestyles (including, perhaps, this holiday), their purchasing of expensive cars and houses, their jobs in large corporations, was simply helping to turn the cogs of the very society they were trying to distance themselves from in their rhetoric. Though they may complain about the West, it was their Western lifestyles and consumption which was fuelling imperialist resource wars and foreign policies and putting their brothers in sub-Saharan and East Africa in danger due to global warming, depletion of resources and uneven economic practices. In fact, what was most funny was the demand by all of them, the following day, to visit a McDonald's for lunch and a Burger King for dinner in the evening: two companies, seen as signs of 'Western cultural imperialism', who engage in less than ethical practices and are the epitome of 'Western' capitalism. (Note that all British Pakistani Muslims I know visit the nearest KFC, Burger King and McDonanld's as soon as they enter a Muslim country, because they want to 'know how it tastes'. They're engaging in a taboo that's been denied them for so long; that's what years of marketing does.)
But Islam was 'very simple', one one of them claimed. We eat when we need to; buy what we need to buy; and sleep where we need to sleep as long as they've been made halal. No need for difficult questions or moral problems. These were machinations of 'the West' or those Muslims infatuated by it! Only such simplicity was ignored by its very advocates when the need to subscribe to a mortgage for a house, or the chance to earn big money in an investment bank came about. In the desrie to engage in these transactions he invoked complex technical Islamic concepts in economics. Simple Islam should never stand in the way of that 4 bed semi in Essex and a £70k wage packet. It should only mean, it seems, legitimising ones prejudices.
And what bigger prejudice do they have then against women (which is a male flaw). Especially those women who might not be dressed to hide themselves from their lustful gazes. 'You see this is what Western liberalism does! It makes women remove their clothes!' Let's not forget that they could lower their gaze (a Qur'anic verse) or walk away. But these women make their faith weak and stop them from doing that. They stopped them from lowering their gazes. How very bibilical! Perhaps they're more Western than they like to think? (I exclude my Utrujji friend from this point.) It was liberty that had allowed women to remove too much clothing and so denied them the right of earning rewards for not engaging in the oppressive gaze (never mind that all laws can only have general principles and lots of exceptions and clarifications to these due to application of these principles, and that all such applications require interpretations by people; therefore culture and law are linked).
What was perhaps most disappointing was that all three are university graduates (all three studied mechanical engineering with me); one is a PhD candidate in a scientific discipline and the other are two highly paid IT professionals. So the arguments from 'social exclusion' or 'alienation' are not acceptable. All three have benefited greatly from their being Westerners and continue to benefit from this economically privileged status. I only asked them to think why this was so, and not to become secularist, alcoholic womanisers, who abandoned prayers and forgot to pay their zakaat or forgot God (in fact, quite the opposite; I'm more conservative and apprehensive about those matters than two of them and I do not believe there is anything necessarily wrong with being conservative). I should add that despite what you've read, they're all extremely nice and warm people; one sacrifices most of his personal time in the service of his parents, whilst another helps out in the local community. And they're all potential experts in their respective fields. Yet all three were shocked when I suggested Dr. Zakir Naik and Harun Yayha might not be authoritative voices in science, since neither are actually scientists. But it was enough for them that Naik and Yahya were using Western science, an extension of Western traditions, to prove their faith in the Qur'an, and at the same time engaging in a bit of lowbrow anti-Westernism which soothed their existence as Western Muslims. It was enough that Yahya had refuted Darwinism and evolution, even though Darwin himself rejected application of his ideas outside the context in which he developed them; and even though Yahya is not a biologist; and even though no biologist accepts such claims of refutation (there goes the 'only consult specialists' rule out of the window). All three of my friends studied and work in technical professions; and that may be part of the problem.
At the end of the trip, my Utrujji friend sat in the hotel one night and pondered that it was the secular democracy of Turkey which had opened up the beauty of Islam's call to God, through the azan, the salat, the Qur'anic recitation by the imam at the end of the salat, and the inspirational architecture of the Ottomans, to those outside Islam (whilst also helping to invigorate a Muslim's din), and not necessarily the 'Islamic states' of the Gulf and elsewhere.