Right now everyone is reeling from the awful, senseless terror attacks in Paris where so many civilians lost their lives so I felt compelled to write this now even though I have 90% of my next post drafted. The attacks have also spawned ugly and hateful backlash against Muslims in general. Muslims who are our neighbours, friends, colleagues and community members. In short, Muslims who are people like all of us.
I was going to write about why I love travelling in Africa and about how people should go despite the often exaggerated risks they hear about it. I also had some advice on how to overcome the very manageable challenges you may encounter there that I wanted to share, but I think this is more important to write right now.
Not All Muslims are Terrorists
It hurts me to hear people be so derogatory toward Muslims. Seriously, there are over a billion and half Muslims in the world and almost all of them don’t want to kill you. A few bad ones do, and as much as terror organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda are terrifying to westerners, they also reek havoc on Muslims. In fact, more Muslims have died at the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda than non-Muslims. The hundreds of thousands Muslims who become refugees trying to move to countries in Europe and North America are fleeing the violence caused by these bad actors.
As I was writing my piece on Africa, I realized that most of the time I’ve spent in Africa has been in predominantly Muslim countries like Mali, Morocco and Zanzibar (technically part of Tanzania but the island is mostly Muslim).
Travelling in Mali
First, I travelled alone to Mali as a blonde, single 26 year old woman. No I was not raped, attacked, mugged or kidnapped during that time. While I was in Mali, I lived in the bustling capital city Bamako with a Muslim family who showed me the most incredible hospitality. Not only were they tolerant of our differences, they sought to understand how my upbringing may have been different than theirs and were fiercely protective of me. They also forgave me very readily if I unwittingly did something that offended them like walking on a prayer mat with my shoes on (a big no no I learned). Their patience, kindness and openmindedness was exemplary and I consider them among the kindest people I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.
I miss them every day.
My coworker Amadou is also a Muslim who coincidentally is from Mali as well. When he travels to Mali to visit his family, he visits my host family as well and delivers the gifts I send with him. Despite their economic disadvantages, my host family always sends back something for me. They even sent some traditional clothes to my partner who they have never met. This is what Muslims are like: helpful, caring, and kind.
Sometimes for my work I travelled to small and remote villages, some where very few westerners had ever visited. These villages had no electricity, no running water, no proper sanitation and the villager’s babies were dying. Despite our obvious differences, I never experienced hostility, only kindness and curiosity. And when I say kindness I mean it. I’m talking about someone who lives in a tiny hut the same size as what a westerner would consider a room is their entire house. Someone who barely earns enough to subsist their family, but who still felt it necessary to give me something for having visited. These people are Muslims.
This is what happens when you visit a Muslim village: impromptu soccer game.
I also spent time touring around Djenné, one of West Africa’s oldest towns and home to some important Islamic heritage sights. There I met Barack, who was a stranger to us but who had also spent 3 days asking my friends to join him for tea until we finally agreed. We had been afraid that he might be a tout who only wanted to sell us something. We were wrong. Barack only wanted to have tea with us and his hospitality was so legendary that we felt ashamed that we had blown him off for 3 days before accepting his invitation. Barack was a Muslim.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, so it would be easy to understand why people would target westerners with considerably more wealth. But when my friend had her cell phone stolen, a crowd had formed around her, the thief had been surrounded and before she even knew her phone was missing, a local, a Muslim, handed it back to her.
The Muslims I met Travelling in Morocco
After my contract was over in Mali, my friend and I travelled to Morocco, another Muslim country. As two young women among the so-called terrorists, we were treated so incredibly well. As I struggled with my suitcase up the stairs of the train station in Casablanca, a tiny girl in a head scarf who looked like she couldn’t be older than 16 offered to help me with my suitcase. She was a Muslim too.
Later my friend and I met Mohamed, whose restaurant was slow so he invited his friend over to play an impromptu concert for us. We were thrilled. Then he invited us to his house for dinner the next day. We had reservations, but went anyway and were once again staggered by the famous Muslim hopsitality. It didn’t end there. Mohamed invited us to spend an afternoon with his family in the countryside. These were humble people of humble means who shared food and tea with two priviliged westerners. Not only did they show us immense kindness, their entire village greeted us with music and multiple families invited us in for tea. All Muslims.
Mohamed’s family. Do they look like terrorists to you?
The Muslims I Met Returning to Africa
When I returned to Africa 5 years later, I spent some time on the mostly-Muslim island Zanzibar. It was during the holy month of Ramadan. Restaurants in the tourists areas remained open despite the local’s fasting, and restaurants closer to where the locals lived would still serve food, they just asked that you didn’t eat it in public. During that same trip, my partner and I rode our bikes to a little village where local boys climbed coconut trees so that we could enjoy fresh coconuts whiled they fasted. This is how accepting of other people’s beliefs Muslims are.
A boy fetches us a coconut to eat during Ramadan.
Those ugly few that perpetuate these awful attacks do not deserve to be in the same company as most of the world’s Muslims.
In difficult times like these, humanity needs to come together, keep each other close and rely on those around us. Hate does nothing but divide us. Hate is not what is needed right now.
If my anecdotal evidence on why I think you should suspend your judgement against Muslims isn’t convincing enough, I did write my Master’s thesis on how Islamic values and democracy are indeed compatible and you can read it here if you have the time and desire to do so. It’s a long, boring, heavily-footnoted read, but you may learn something.