The dreadful events in Paris and the State of Emergency following it, have put the world on high alert. The USA have issued a worldwide travel alert. A friend spoke to me of her embarrassment for feeling uncomfortable, even scared, riding in an elevator in a Sydney office building alone with a bearded Muslim man. “I am not a racist,” she said. “But I judged him by his religion.”
The world is scared of Muslims right now. The Paris attacks could happen again anywhere, anytime. A fanatic minority of fundamentalist Muslims is spreading violence and fear, committing acts of terrorism in the name of religion. But Islam is not a violent religion. Islamic cultures are hospitable and friendly.
Go and find out for yourself. Travel to a Muslim country. Walk the streets, meet the people. That’s what I did a few months after the tragic events of 9/11. It was an eye opener. Against the good advice of just about anybody, I visited Oman at the end of 2001, two months after the USA had declared war on terror which skewed popular imagination into thinking that all Muslims are terrorists.
Oman wasn’t on anybody’s map back then (and I didn’t have a digital camera back then; sorry, no Oman photos). “Not Amman, I am going to Muscat, in Oman,” I’d have to repeat it again and again. That small wedge at the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, more traditional than the swanky UAE, less daunting than Saudi Arabia or Yemen, which border it.
I went on a self-guided camping tour with an Oman-savvy expat friend and four tall, blond, German friends. On our first night we drove off the sealed road and spread our tarps on an even patch of gravel under a canopy of stars. Just as night began to fall, a group of boys returning from school approached and I felt a rising sense of fear. “How are you? What’s your name?” their eyes sparkling in the fading light, their tongues eager to try out their school English on what quite possibly were the first white foreigners they had ever met.
In three weeks traversing Oman, we only met one other group of half a dozen Western tourists. The country’s fledgling tourism industry had come to a standstill in the wake of 9/11. We were greeted like a mirage in the desert. We were a symbol of hope that dialogue was still possible as the world became embattled in the clash of civilisations.
Everybody we met was keen to strike up a conversation. Shy young women, balancing the freshly washed morning dishes on their heads, stopped by to try out the dozen words they could say in English. Families invited us to sweet tea and fresh dates in their homes after Friday prayers somewhere deep inside the countryside in a village full of crumbling mudbrick houses. At the market in Muscat, an ancient looking Omani with no English offered me a hand of bananas. I thought it was his way of saying thank you for visiting my country, for having faith in my people.
Those were humbling experiences. How many times have I invited passing backpackers into my home in Australia to share a drink, to make them welcome in my country?
On my last day in Oman, venturing out on my own, I got stuck on a highway outside Muscat at dusk, waiting for a bus that never came. I had no choice but to hitchhike back into town. I don’t advocate hitchhiking as a safe form of travel for women anywhere (though I have done my fair share of it when I was younger and sillier), but strangely in the little known Arabic country of Oman, it felt perfectly safe at that moment.
A young bearded man wearing a traditional full-length dishdasha stopped in a battered sedan, shyly asking if he could give me a brief guided tour of his town. His voice was filled with pride as he showed me his city. Then he dropped me outside of my hotel at Muttrah Corniche and said “Now you’ve seen that not every Muslim person is evil. Please tell your country.”
I had been entrusted with an important message. It’s a message I was given over and over again on that trip and on subsequent trips to other Muslim countries. It’s a message that needs to be repeated at times like today when extremist attacks spread waves of fear about Islamic culture. Because Islamic culture is so different from the images of bearded fanatics that flicker across our screens.
Last year Australians were advised to reconsider their need to travel to Egypt in light of extremist attacks on the Sinai peninsula. I had a compelling reason to travel to Luxor and down the Nile to the border of Sudan with a friend, who had come to spread her husband’s ashes. Our Nile cruise was ridiculously affordable, the sights of ancient Egypt – from Abu Simble to the Karnack temple – where blissfully tourist free and people opened their homes to us, wherever we went. It was the same message all over again. Warm hospitality is at the heart of Muslim culture.
Strangers invited us to their weddings, shared sweet mint tea, treating us with respect and curiosity. When I felt compelled to buy a pack of pens for a young mother, whose husband had died shortly after the birth of her red-cheeked toddler, she shook her head. My visit to her country was gift enough. I had met her brothers. I had seen with my own eyes that not all Muslims are radicalized. And I had witnessed once again the urgency Muslims all over the world feel to spread the message that being Muslim doesn’t mean you are a violent extremist.
Living in a strict Muslim country for the last 10 months, I learned from my friends and colleagues, that just like back home, where many are lapsed Catholics or accidental Protestants, in the Maldives not everybody is religious. Some go to the mosque every day, some never go, some only go on Fridays. Some choose to wear the burqa because they are deeply religious, some because it’s a fashion, some because of peer pressure and, a decreasing number, don’t wear it at all, but that doesn’t mean that they are not religious.
The reality of a country is always so much more complex than can be gleaned from the outside. Never has it been more important to travel to a Muslim country and see for yourself the true nature of Islamic civilizations. Yes, it’s scary to think about the randomness of acts of terrorism committed by a few fanatical radicalized Muslims, but right now London and Frankfurt might be just as much at risk as Istanbul, Marrakesh or Amman. Chose your destination carefully – avoid places that come with severe travel warnings – and expect to be surprised and humbled.
Iran is on my wishlist for 2016!
Which Islamic country would you like to visit?
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