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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
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Why Now is the Best Time to Visit Muslim Countries

Not long ago I visited three countries. In the first I walked in the footsteps of Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Bedouin shepherds, Alexander the Great, Roman soldiers, the Crusaders, and even Lawrence of Arabia.

My next stop was like a cultural kaleidoscope. From one angle I saw the historical artifacts of a true cradle of civilization; from another, 65 million people working hard to maintain their economic and military security in the midst of sometimes hostile neighbors. When I looked again, I saw golden beaches and modern architecture. Minarets, the “lighthouses of Islam,” coexisted with skyscrapers.

At my final destination I looked forward to seeing some of the finest examples of ancient Roman architecture, visiting the ruins of a legendary city, and boarding a camel to cross the sands of a great desert. But I soon learned that what I thought of as off the beaten track is immensely popular with fun and sun lovers from Northern Europe, who flock to miles of gorgeous beaches lined with hundreds of posh hotels where they to enjoy a cuisine heavily influenced by the French.

You may have recognized these three fabulous countries as Jordan, Turkey, and Tunisia, the population of each of which is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Under current circumstances a trip to lands in which Islam is the prevailing religion may not seem a wise choice. To the contrary, I’m convinced that now is precisely the time to go. Furthermore, after making a thoughtful choice of destinations and insuring that you are properly prepared, I believe it is safe to do so.

Of the three countries, travel to Jordan may seem to be the toughest sell. After all, Jordan shares borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, and—almost—Palestine. However, because of the inspired guidance of late King Hussein and now his son Abdullah II, it exists in a kind of cocoon where the voice of reason prevails.

In Tunisia the presence of Islam is pervasive, yet never intrusive. Some local women dress in the demure manner seen in more traditional countries; others dress in the upscale fashions of Paris or Rome. I found it a safe and pleasant place to learn about Muslim culture and interact with the people.

In Turkey the brilliant leader Ataturk separated church and state in the 1930s. Thus while the people are Muslim, ranging from liberal to profoundly fundamentalist, the government is secular. Turkey would be my recommendation for a traveler looking for an introduction to Islam.

Generalizations About Islam

Islamic countries stretch from Morocco across the Middle East to Indonesia and beyond and include scores of diverse ethnic groups and languages. Nevertheless, we are bombarded by pronouncements about the nature and motivations of over 1.2 billion people as if they were one. Westerners are too ready to accept generalizations, especially negative ones, about Muslims, perhaps because we know so little about them. Think about the extent to which present problems are related to isolation and to fear of, and failure to understand, the unknown “other.” The more we learn about what motivates people in other cultures, by putting ourselves in the middle of them, the more likely we are to find common cause and harmony and the less likely we are to make serious mistakes.

This belief has taken me to more than 100 countries, including visits to 10 in which Islam is dominant. I have read most of the Koran and had lengthy conversations with Muslims about philosophy, politics, and religion. I don’t pretend to understand the many Muslim cultures around the world, but I know a great deal more than if I had stayed at home.

Some years ago, after traveling for several months in Africa, I went to Namibia to join the celebration of its independence. I’d decided to avoid Namibia’s next-door neighbor, South Africa, as a protest against apartheid. Besides, there were occasional clashes in the streets. But then I realized that my decision was based upon second-hand analyses. Surely I wasn’t better off remaining ignorant about the reality. So I caught a bus from Windhoek to Capetown.

After traveling throughout the country, I left even more strongly opposed to apartheid, but I also left with more understanding of the ruling white minority. Their reality was different from the way it was portrayed at home.

In the end, should the fact that terrorism is a threat and harsh rhetoric about war fills the air affect our travel choices? Certainly. But as I write this, weighing risks versus rewards, I feel quite safe in traveling.

Travel is about pleasure as well as learning. There are destinations in the Muslim world that rank among the most rewarding on this planet. Jordan, Tunisia, and Turkey are easy to navigate on your own—and you’ll learn more if you travel independently. Whatever your choice, get off the main track and meet local people. That’s the point.

I ended my trip at a Turkish monument to the madness of war. During a single WW II battle at Gallipoli more than 55,000 men and boys slaughtered one another for reasons few of them understood. So let us visit one another, learn from one another, and make wise choices.

Travel Safety: Determine What There Is to Fear

Rather than asking whether we can travel safely in Muslim countries, perhaps we should put the question more honestly: Who might we fear? Is it the ordinary person on the street? a hot-headed zealot? a terrorist?

Ordinary People: I have always found ordinary people in Muslim countries to be extraordinarily friendly and generous, and that has not changed.

The Zealot: Encountering a hot-headed zealot eager to provoke trouble is possible but highly unlikely. The important thing is to identify and avoid locations where militants gather (local people know). Never call attention to yourself. Refuse to be provoked.

The Terrorist: Terrorists are trained to attack symbolic targets to achieve maximum physical and psychological damage. That may suggest some bias by travelers in favor of less-traveled destinations—say Brazil over London and Paris. We cannot know with certainly how to avoid a strike, but we can refuse to be terrorized by the possibility. The attempt to avoid all risk would make life intolerable; however, taking steps to minimize risks is only sensible.

Timing: Any place can become off limits for a time. Being in Palestine and Israel a year and a half ago was a valuable learning experience, but I don’t plan to return in the immediate future. Timing is not a Muslim issue. It has been a consideration for me in Peru, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and many other destinations.

Where Tourists Are Targets: Attacks directed at tourists, such as the one in Bali (which is actually Hindu) have been rare. Where they become a pattern, take a pass.

Large Crowds: Traveling often means riding in public transportation and being in public spaces and in large crowds. Experienced travelers know that crowds always mean some risk—mostly from pickpockets. To be especially cautious it might be wise to avoid cruise ships and huge tourist hotels and resorts popular with Westerners (I avoid them anyway, for other reasons).

Local Turmoil: I was in Bolivia when the government was thrown out in an armed coup. I had a similar experience in Madagascar. In both cases I stayed out of sight in my hotel. In Bangkok and Santiago I left town for a few days to avoid huge antigovernment demonstrations. None presented the slightest danger to me. If street violence is frequent and apparently random, I take a pass. The fabled Vale of Kashmir is a currently off my list.

Being Cautious: Wise travelers are cautious. That’s how you control risk. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Use your eyes. Trust your instincts.

Avoid Giving Offense: Learn and observe the customs of the place you will visit. Dress with a degree of modesty acceptable to local people. In some Muslim countries women should wear hats and loose clothing and avoid touching and even eye contact with men. Don’t flaunt your nationality. Never engage in a heated political or religious debate. Keep a low profile.

How to Become a Traveler

As I grew up in Boston my parents often used nice weekends to visit New England’s nooks and crannies such as the Old North Church in Boston and the stone fences of Lexington from behind which farmers struck blows for independence. We vacationed in New Hampshire’s apple orchards and the deep, cool woods of Maine. Later, living in Houston, the family traveled from the eerie bayous of Louisiana to the bone-dry canyons of Big Bend National Park. In other words, travel, even of limited scope, was established as a value in my mind.

The Navy paid most of the costs of my college education and at graduation presented me with a formal invitation to board an aircraft carrier for a 3-year guided and catered tour. I had the time to “see the world.”

After the Navy, I went to law school to prepare for what could have been a fairly conventional life. As it turned out though, after practicing corporate law for a few years, I switched to the public sector for jos in finance and housing policy in Washington, D.C. Then I returned to the private sector as a real estate developer with some interesting entrepreneurial adventures thrown in (including a natural foods restaurant and a foundation which donates to Third World villages equipment that disinfects contaminated water).

For years I limited myself to the standard 1- or 2-week vacation. Then came an unexpected opportunity to join a group running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in 14-foot wooden dories. I thought I was too busy to get away, but I went anyway.

The length of the trip gave me enough time to separate myself from home and business and to synchronize myself completely with where I was. I learned how important it is to be on the road long enough at a stretch for a magic “click” to occur in the psyche.

That was my first glimmer of the potentially enormous rewards of travel. It was a turning point.

I gave up the fantasy of being indispensable . . . and was emancipated. An article in National Geographic described New Zealand’s Milford Track as “the finest walk in the world.” I bought an airline ticket the next day.

Learning about people while experiencing the physical majesty of our planet is like money in the bank. I think of the priest who reportedly said, “In all my years, I’ve never once heard a man on his deathbed say, ‘My only regret in life is that I didn’t spend more time in the office.’ ” I’ll never say that either.

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