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
Under current circumstances a trip to lands in which Islam is the prevailing religion may not seem a wise choice. To the contrary, Im
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, andalmostPalestine. 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
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 dont 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. Id
decided to avoid Namibias 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 wasnt 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 ownand youll learn more if you travel independently. Whatever your choice, get off the
main track and meet local people. Thats 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 destinationssay 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 dont 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 riskmostly 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. Thats how you control risk. Be aware of whats 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.
Dont 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 Englands 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 Hampshires 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 Zealands
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, Ive never once heard a man on his deathbed say, My only regret in life is that I didnt spend more time in the
office. Ill never say that either.