DEBATE: Has Travel Changed Our Feelings About Islam?
We've now lived in two Muslim countries. What did we think?
It’s been a while since we’ve done one of our regular debates about different aspects of our travels. How about we do another “light” topic, like when we debated whether ice cream is better in a cone or a cup?
Like, say, what do we think of Islam?
Maybe I shouldn’t joke about something as serious as religion, but the truth is, this particular discussion brings me joy, and I think we can all use more of that these days.
Years ago, a friend asked me: What have you changed your mind about in the last five years?
I was in my twenties, and I thought it was a great question, very provocative. But honestly? I was kind of stumped. At that age, I'd thought I had it all figured out. Since college, where I figured out My Basic Political Beliefs™, I hadn’t really changed my mind on much.
Traveling the world these last five years, I’ve changed my mind about so many things. But maybe no opinion of mine has changed more than my take on Islam.
Here’s what I used to think: “I’m sure there are a lot of great Muslims in the world, and we should all try really hard not to judge or stereotype individuals, but man, it seems like this religion is stuck in the fifteenth century, and I’m really bothered by the extremism and violence.”
Then you and I lived in a couple of Muslim-majority countries: Istanbul, Türkiye, last year, and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, just last month.
And I started meeting all these fantastic people who just happened to be Muslim — some secular and some religious.
And they weren’t much like I imagined. They were more knowledgeable, and worldly, and tolerant, and sophisticated — even when they weren’t “educated,” per se. One of our friends was so poor he had to drop out of school when he was eight and basically educated himself by reading every book he could get his hands on.
Also, the things they told me about Islam were quite beautiful, especially the importance of caring for your neighbors, no matter their religion or background. Community is almost as important as family.
Now, of course, this wasn’t a random sample of Muslims. These were all people you and I chose as friends.
But man, it’s sure a marked contrast to the vibe I’m getting from America lately, which has become the place where nuance and complexity go to die. Part of me thinks Trump drove the whole country insane.
Anyway, even apart from the individual friends we made, there’s a general sensibility I really like, at least in the two Muslim countries we lived in. I could feel the hospitality and generosity. I found the cities incredibly welcoming and open — and safe! I’ve never felt as safe in any city anywhere in the world as I did in Istanbul and Sarajevo.
It’s ironic that I’ve had my faith in old-fashioned liberalism and basic human decency restored a bit by living in Muslim countries. This was so not on my Bingo card.
Okay, I really hope this whole thing doesn’t sound like I’m fetishizing or romanticizing Muslims.
All I know is that right now, two of my favorite cities in the world are Mexico City, Mexico, and Istanbul, Türkiye, and the reason why I love both is the same: the fantastic, welcoming people.
Michael, what about you? Have your feelings about Islam changed?
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