As I write this, I’m spending a few days in Egypt – by my count, this is the eleventh Muslim-majority country I’ve visited (though that count includes a fast, accidental journey through the Palestinian West Bank, driving a car with yellow Israeli number plates, so perhaps ten is a more accurate number). A few minutes ago I took a seat in a café. At the next table was a veiled woman with two small boys; I smiled and nodded at her – she met my eyes and nodded back. Maybe she smiled back too.
Western misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Muslims and Muslim-majority countries don’t begin with the 9/11 attacks – the seeds of the fear have been there for centuries. I admit that when I took my first trip outside the “Christian world”, to Turkey, I expected to meet some unfriendliness at the least, and resolved to keep my Jewish identity a secret. I had already travelled in Europe and North America, but nowhere else. On my first day in Istanbul I asked a local how to get somewhere; he beckoned me to follow him, and I reluctantly did. We walked to a main street and boarded a bus. I looked around at the other passengers and listened to them talking their incomprehensible language, and wondered if I was heading into danger, or at least that my guide was going to try to fleece me for some cash. After a little while we got off the bus in a residential area. The man pointed up the street to show me my destination. Then he waved goodbye, turned and walked away. My first real encounter with a Turk, and he’d been more friendly and helpful than pretty much any Western stranger I’d ever met. Coincidence? It turned out not – Turks, I found, are generally more friendly and welcoming than any European population I’ve encountered (by which I include European diaspora cultures including North America and Australia).
My second venture into an Islamic culture worried me more. I’d been offered a few weeks’ work in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Growing up Jewish, having been taught to love Israel and having vague childhood memories of Arab-Israel hostilities, I had a negative view of Arabs. Nobody had overtly told me they were bad people, but somehow I’d developed that idea anyway. I was worried people might spot that I didn’t look particularly English, and enquire about my origins. At immigration, my passport was checked by a man in traditional Arab dress. I admit I was worried – but of course I had no problems. As my time in Abu Dhabi passed, I relaxed, and would stroll the city in the evenings, eating in local places. After a while, I confided in a work colleague (a Lebanese man) that I was Jewish. No alarms sounded; he didn’t look shocked; but shook his head sadly: “The Jews and the Palestinians are the smartest people in the Middle East”, he said. “If only they could work together, they would lead the region”. The people of UAE proved to be welcoming and friendly enough – though perhaps less approachable than Turks. Given that native-born UAE residents are fairly wealthy and form an upper class over a largely immigrant workforce, that’s not surprising though.
Later travels took me to several Muslim countries in North and West Africa. Each time I found people who were generally more welcoming of outsiders than Europeans; indeed, I started to realise that a natural hostility to outsiders seems to be a characteristic found more strongly in European cultures than elsewhere. Given our continent’s position as a remote north-western outpost of the Old World, that’s perhaps not surprising. Europe has been of little interest to outsiders for most of human existence, and Europeans aren’t used by nature to foreigners visiting us. We are still the fortress continent, and we (including our white American, Australasian and South African cousins) carry that old European fear of anybody different to ourselves. The only long-term visitors to Europe from outside are the Jews and the Gypsies – and neither group has fared well.
I have frustrating conversations on Twitter with ignorant morons, largely in the US, who have never visited a Muslim country – many who have never even met a Muslim person – and yet persist in a ludicrously narrow, stereotypical view of Muslims. There’s nothing that can be truly described as “Islamic culture”. Surface Arab conservatism hides the same vices that exist in the West. Morocco was a haven of tolerance for European homosexuals long before they were accepted anywhere in Europe. I’ve danced in a local Moroccan night club that doubled as a gay venue and a brothel; I’ve seen Gambian and Sierra Leonean women dance far more outrageously than would be considered “decent” in many American bars. Saudis drive to Bahrain to get drunk for the weekend just as Brits head out to Amsterdam to get stoned.
Is the Islamic world packed with uniformly wonderful people? Of course not – and it’s the diversity of cultures that gives the lie to the idea that there such thing as Islamic culture. (Muslim) North Africans I’ve met, who have worked in wealthy Saudi Arabia have described the (Muslim) Saudis to me as the most racist people they’ve ever encountered. The Muslim world contains communists and fascists, atheists and fundamentalists, just as the Western world does.
As for the growing myth that Muslims and Jews are natural enemies: this is spread by Christians, the true historic enemies of both Jews and Muslims. Muslim nations sheltered Jews in the 1930s and 1940s when Europe was no longer a safe place for them. Further back, the Islamic Moorish Empire in Spain protected the right of Jews to worship; when the Catholics retook Iberia, they forced Jews and Muslims to convert, under the threat of death. My own ancestry includes some Sephardic Jews who fled from Portugal to the Netherlands following the Christian victory over the Moors. Until the establishment of the state of Israel, every Muslim country in the Middle East and North Africa, plus Turkey, Persia/Iran, Pakistan, and others had thriving Jewish communities; most of these countries still have small Jewish communities, sadly diminished by the pull of Israel. Israel itself owes its existence to the Nazis; the vast majority of European Jews had no interest in joining the Zionist extremists until they were slaughtered en-masse by Christians.
As for alcohol? This is very much the European’s drug of choice, but I’ve drunk legally in every Muslim country I visited; in the UAE, only foreign passport-holders can drink legally, but in the other nine countries it was freely available, including locally-produced beers and wines. This is the case in the vast majority of Muslim countries. Cannabis and hash were also easily available in most of the countries, and generally more tolerated than in the majority of European countries or US states. Many Muslims drink, though more moderately than Westerners, and many tend to give up as they get older, seeing it as a drug for young people.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which recently polled around 40% of the vote here in Egypt, is conservative, and against much of what I believe in; yet most of its beliefs are markedly more tolerant and centrist than those on the Christian right of US politics. It’s sad but inevitable that democracy in Arab and North African countries has unleashed conservatism; the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are in the majority, poor and rural. Rural people are naturally conservative. The only way towards liberalism in these places is to allow democracy, development and urbanisation to occur. The next, better educated and wealthier generation in turn will demand their sexual and personal freedoms from the religious right.
The religious right in America, despite being the most bigoted and loudest voice against Muslims, is the natural ally of the religious right in Arabia and North Africa. They believe in the same things: that sexual liberty needs to be reigned in, that drugs and alcohol should be tightly controlled, that abortion and homosexuality are wrong and that people shouldn’t be allowed the freedom to choose these things for themselves. The far-right in Europe is more secular, intelligent and cynical – they use the supposed “intolerance” of Muslims against them; yet this intolerance is a lie. For example, a recent poll in the UK showed British Muslims were marginally more accepting of homosexuality than British Christians were.
Sadly, even some liberals have fallen for this propaganda. Some have supported France’s bigoted ban on veils, accepting the lie that most women don’t choose the veil for themselves; they often accept the “Muslims are intolerant” line almost as easily as bigoted right-wing Christians do. They believe that Western troops in Afghanistan can somehow “improve” the lives of women (forgetting that the rise of the Taliban conservatives was caused by our own destabilising of liberal, secular regimes there).
Oh, and let’s get past the lie that Muslim-hate isn’t racist. Yes, as our bigoted moron friends will constantly point out, Islam isn’t a race. But Islamophobia has just become a proxy for race hate towards old targets: Pakistanis in the UK, Moroccans in the Netherlands, blacks and Arabs in the US, Turks in Germany.
We need to confront the lies and the liars head-on. The terrorism in the world comes overwhelmingly from ourselves in the West. We can strengthen liberal tolerance and freedom in Islamic countries by strengthening it in our own, and lending support to struggles for democracy, social equality and tolerance elsewhere. The rise of religious crazies in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will only be strengthened by the rise of fascist, Christian crazies in Europe and North America. Our job is to expose their moronic lies at home – our Muslim cousins can deal with their own problems.
As I prepared to submit this post, a little Egyptian boy came and offered me a bowl of sweets – I took one, saying Shukran. the boy’s mother and grandmother, both wearing hijabs, walked past and smiled at me. “It’s his Mum’s birthday”, explained the grandmother, gesturing at her daughter, flashing me a broad smile, before they hurried on after the child.