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Traveling to Muslim Countries

Seeing Through a Different Lens

Domes in Alexandria, Egypt

This article is not about South Africa; however, to lead into the real story we need to start this journey with a valuable lesson I learned there. I’d gone to Namibia to join the celebration on its independence day in 1990. As was common at the time, I’d decided to avoid Namibia’s neighbor, South Africa, as a protest against apartheid. Then I realized that my decision was based on media reports and second-hand analyses about South Africa. And, of course, the U.S. government wasn’t talking with South Africans. Surely, I thought, I can’t be better off by remaining ignorant about the reality. I caught a bus from Windhoek to Capetown the next day.

After traveling around South Africa and talking with many people, white and black, I felt even more strongly opposed to apartheid, but I also left with an understanding that the ruling white minority saw the situation very differently from what was portrayed at home. That knowledge enabled me to think more clearly about what would be necessary to achieve justice—and what might constitute justice.

Critical Issues

Today we are confronted by dilemmas so complex and daunting that I wonder whether we have the intelligence and political will to solve them. I’m thinking of global warming, out-of-control energy consumption, epidemics and pandemics, and widespread poverty, among others.

There’s another mega-issue that also affects all of us: the deteriorating relationship between the Muslim (not Arab) world and the West. On one side is rapidly growing hostility toward, and violent terrorist attacks on, the West in general and the U.S. in particular. On the other side are military invasions plus what some perceive as cultural and economic invasions (globalization, among others).

The consequences are profound: tens of thousands killed or maimed, millions forced into an exile from which many will never return, spending hundreds of billions of dollars on building a flawed fortification around America, escalating energy prices, growing fear of air travel, and conflict among ourselves and with other countries. Even in the face of all this, too many people have retreated into denial or silence.

How We See the World

To avoid continuous conflict with Muslim fundamentalists, let alone reach reconciliation, we must better understand how “they” (more about generalizations later) see the world. Building barriers—whether in the old style of the Great Wall of China or the new technological style of sniffers, detectors, and implanted IDs—reduces some risks. Lasting security, however, rests on understanding motivations and altering attitudes and behavior, theirs and ours.

Many travelers visit Muslim countries such as Morocco and Jordan. Too often we focus on what these places were like 500 or even 5,000 years ago but fail to connect with what’s going on there today.

The Generalization Trap

What we casually refer to as “the Muslim world” includes countless diverse ethnic groups and languages. Nevertheless, we are bombarded by pronouncements about the nature and motivations of around 1.3 billion people as if they were one. Some leaders insist that “they” can only be “for us or against us.” Too often, Westerners accept generalizations, especially negative ones, about Muslims, perhaps because we know so little about their histories, cultures, and religion. Think about the extent to which present problems are related to isolation and to fear of the unknown “other.”

The 100-plus countries I’ve visited include 10 in which leaders who are Muslims dominate the government. I’ve read an English translation of parts of the Qur’an and have had lengthy conversations with Muslims about politics, philosophy, and religion. I know a great deal more than if I’d stayed at home but I’m very aware of the limitations of my own knowledge.

The more we learn about what motivates people in other cultures by putting ourselves in their midst, the more likely we are to find what binds us together and the less likely we are to make serious mistakes in dealing with each other.

Proposition #1

One of the things readers of Transitions Abroad have in common is that we are travelers. We venture out into the real world where the great issues are most evident, most intense. Therefore, I propose that travelers intentionally become more of a communications bridge; that we travel more often in Muslim countries and engage in real conversations—asking questions, listening, and considering.

I’m not suggesting becoming goodwill ambassadors “selling” democracy. Nor am I overlooking the fact that a small minority of Muslim governments, groups, and individuals commit acts barbaric by the standards of any civilized culture. At the same time, we should fully understand that some Muslims see some of our behavior the same way.

We need to focus on understanding motivations and then share that knowledge to affect public opinion and government policies.

Continued failure to understand what motivates those who attack the West and, thereby, failing to address the underlying issues, will condemn us to irregular warfare for an unforeseeable number of generations.

Proposition #2

I also propose that we “travel” without leaving home. There are millions of Muslims in the U.S. and Canada. Take the initiative. Arrange meetings at a local mosque (some mosques offer an open invitation to visit for pot-luck suppers), Islamic center, or Muslim student organization. Visit a university and talk with Muslim professors. Chat with the Muslims who provide you with everything from medical care to falafels. Discuss their perceptions and yours on ideological and ethnic issues. Test your own assumptions. And listen.

I’ve met a number of times in a local mosque with people from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries. Always seeking to understand motivations, I asked tough questions without seeming judgmental. I’m still processing what I’ve heard in response. As with my first visit to South Africa, I now comprehend the real issues better than when I saw them only through the lens with which I grew up. I’m also better prepared to understand what I see when I travel in the Muslim world.

Identifying motivations in this way isn’t easy; in fact, it can be intense. Following up is no simple task either. But the more we know about beliefs and principles that motivate people of other cultures, the more likely we are to find common cause. Who better to undertake this venture than travelers?

Proposition #3

Here’s my final proposal. A few tour operators already introduce their clients to meaningful interactions with local people. I propose that far more tour operators active in Muslim countries do that as well, getting clients out of the tourist rut. Arrange conversations with clerics and politicians. Schedule meals in restaurants that include talks with owners or willing local guests. Sit down with college students. Sure, it takes an effort to make this happen, but the results are a lot more valuable and memorable than a trip to a third mosque or fourth museum.

Wiser Choices

To conclude on a personal note, I ended one trip to Turkey deeply affected by visiting Gallipoli, a monument to the madness of war. During a single World War I battle there, more than 55,000 men and boys slaughtered one another for reasons few of them understood. Today we suffer from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere.

For centuries, our understanding has expanded as we’ve explored the lesser-known world. If we stop such travel, the world we know will grow smaller. A decrease in tolerance is certain to follow. We must learn from one another and make today’s choices with far greater wisdom than is now the case.

Safety Matters

Does the fact that terrorism exists and harsh rhetoric fills the air affect our travel choices? Certainly. Before visiting places where emotions may be inflamed against Western visitors, I educate myself more than ever about the social and political climate. Now is precisely the time to go to most Muslim countries. Make a thoughtful choice of destinations and prepare yourself properly and it is, I believe, quite safe to go now.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, for example, may be left off your itinerary for a while. Lebanon, Syria, and Iran require careful consideration of timing. But that leaves scores of other Muslim countries that stretch from Morocco across the Middle East to Indonesia and beyond, as well as deep into Africa. Muslims are the majority in 46 or more countries, but don’t overlook countries in which Muslims are a sizable minority. In South Asia (e.g., India) there are 420 million Muslims; in East Asia (e.g., Indonesia)—290 million; in Arab League countries—285 million; in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Tanzania)—255 million; in Central Asia (e.g., Russia, Uzbekistan)—105 million; in Turkey—70 million; in Western Europe—10 million; and in the U.S. and Canada—8 million.

Every experienced traveler weighs risks versus rewards and there are destinations in the Muslim world that rank among the most rewarding on this planet. Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, and others are also easy to navigate on your own.

Whatever your choice, the point is to get off Main Street and meet local people.

Who do you fear? Rather than generalizing about the safety of travel in Muslim countries, perhaps we should put this question more honestly.

I’ve consistently found ordinary people in Muslim countries to be friendly and generous. Terrorists, on the other hand, are trained to attack symbolic targets to inflict maximum physical and psychological damage. It seems to me the possibility of suffering a terrorist strike when walking down a street in a Muslim country is extremely remote.

Encountering a hotheaded zealot eager to incite trouble is possible but also highly unlikely. Identify and avoid locations where militants gather (local people know). Don’t call attention to yourself. Refuse to be provoked.

Timing. Any place can become off limits for a time. Being in Palestine and Israel was a valuable learning experience, but I don’t plan to return in the immediate future. Over the years timing has been a consideration in Peru, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, among other places.

Where Tourists Are Targets. Attacks directed at tourists, such as the ones in Bali have been rare. Where they become a pattern, take a pass.

Crowds. Traveling often means riding in public transportation and being in public spaces and in large crowds. Experienced travelers know that crowds mean some risk—mostly from pickpockets. Some are avoiding international tourist chain hotels, resorts popular with Westerners, and even cruise ships. And don’t go to watch a local political protest.

Being cautious controls 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 many Muslim countries women should cover their hair, wear loose clothing, and avoid touching and even eye contact with men. Don’t flaunt your nationality. Keep a low profile and never engage publicly in a heated political or religious debate.

Air travel. Who knows? Risk of terrorist attack is somewhere between infinitesimal and unquantifiable. I’d rather that the security guys weren’t so far behind the curve, but that’s the way it is. I pay more attention to the list of foreign airlines prohibited from landing in the U.S.—because of sloppy maintenance—and refuse to fly with them anywhere in the world.