Overcoming Islamophobia: A Christian Considers His Good Life in the Islamic World

I have frequently encountered massive ignorance about the “Islamic World” from otherwise intelligent and educated people in the West. Inevitably when I told aquaintances that I live in a Muslim or Arab country, their response was “Stay safe!”

Actually, the cities I lived in — “conservative” Kayseri, Turkey and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — generally felt far safer than the places I have lived in the United States. I was aware of fewer violent incidents or senseless crimes than in the US.

When at home in America, I heard or read about an inevitable “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. “They (Muslims) want to destroy us and our way of life,” conquer the West and impose Sharia Law, I heard frequently on Fox News.

I heard frequent denunciations that “there are no moderate Muslims” and that there is no religious freedom anywhere in the Middle East. This was simply counter to my daily experience.

An American friend declared that Christians are uniformly persecuted and on the verge of extinction “in the Muslim world.”

He didn’t know what to believe when I told him about the very active Christian churches in the United Arab Emirates, with religious freedom an essential liberty expressed in the country’s Constitution.

Yes, Christianity is endangered in some Arab countries, but the reason for that is much more complicated than one of ideological hostility from Muslims. The vast majority of Christians in Turkey, for example, were Greek Orthodox, historically linked to Greek nationalism, with which the Turkish nation several times in the 20th century was at war. (Nowadays, Greek Orthodox churches do hold services in Turkey, though their ability to grow is restricted.)

It’s true that Palestinian Christians have fled the Middle East. But the main reason is the way they are treated by the government of Israel.

Iraqi Christian refugees told me they felt far safer when Saddam Hussein was in power than in the chaos that enveloped the country after his removal by the U.S. government.

Too often I encountered Americans and Europeans who have never visited the Middle East who sought to lecture me on what life was like here, rather than asking questions or seeking out my personal experiences and observations.

From them, I heard pronouncements that there is near universal, homicidal anti-Semitism in the Middle East. My Jewish friends who lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates and other Arab nations might disagree.

When I said I teach at a university in the Middle East, and most of my students were young women, some of my Western acquaintances ask questions like:

“Are women even allowed to be educated? Can they drive? Is your wife allowed to drive? Can she walk out of your compound alone? Is she even allowed to work?”

The answer was yes to all such questions.

In Ireland, at a bed and breakfast, I encountered a social worker from London who presumed that I had taken a well-paying hardship post in the Middle East to the detriment of my wife’s freedom, and that she, in particular, must live under oppressive and extremely restrictive conditions.

“Not exactly,” was my response. My wife was offered a job before I was, she traveled to scout it out, and she felt the pay and working conditions as a TESOL — Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages — was far better than what she could command in the states.

When my siblings visited me in Turkey and we explored the ancient Christian caves of Cappadocia, with a camera I recorded my sisters spontaneously bursting out into a rendition of “Amazing Grace” and posted it to Facebook. When they returned to their homes in Florida and North Carolina, friends asked fearfully if they felt safe publicly expressing Christian beliefs in a Muslim country like Turkey.

“Not at all,” was their answer. Indeed, the Muslims we encountered seem to have a lot of respect for Christianity.

Some time later, a high school friend with an Ivy League education who lives in Washington, DC posted on Facebook that she was filled with fear if not terror when she simply walked past the famous Islamic Center, built in 1957 and originally one of the largest mosques in the Western hemisphere, just as a crowd of Muslims gathered at the gates.

It was almost like a new Cold War, and a new Red Scare of the 1950s. The exaggerated fears that we in the West were in an apocalyptic battle with communism were replaced by exaggerated fears of an apocalyptic battle with Islam, leading to an inevitable clash of civilizations in which one party would be the winner and one party the loser. Or, more probably, both will lose.

Indeed, some religious extremists — Jewish, Christian as well as Islamic — say they believe in and even pray for the apocalypse, the end of the world that will usher in the rule of God, Jehovah, or Allah.

This is crazy, dangerous thinking, and we must pull back from the brink.

Rising anxiety about the inevitable cultural conflicts between Islam and the West are understandable, especially since harsh images and stereotypes of life in Islamic countries emanate constantly from dramatic media accounts.

Since the turn of the century, an almost daily barrage of negative stories have marred the image of Islam — the endless and seemingly unsolvable conflict between Israel and Palestine, the extremist cell Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001; wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Osama Bin Laden assassinated after he was discovered hiding “in plain sight” in Pakistan for six years; Arab Spring protests in numerous countries followed by an oppressive counter-revolution; civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; killings over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in France, President Assad of Syria waging war on his own people; bombings, beheadings and terrorist governance by Islamic State fanatics; online recruiting by ISIS of impressionable Western teens who book flights to join the jihadists; tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and flooding into Europe; fanatical jihadists engaging in terrorist attacks in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and frequent “high alerts” over the threats of new attacks.

This news has assaulted our minds. But underneath the horrible headlines, peaceful, generous and even sometimes loving interactions take place on a daily basis among the vast majority of Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of other religions or no religions in the Middle East.

We must not lose sight of that.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make about the big bad world we see on television is to over-generalize, and to make hysterical assumptions.

There is no “Islamic world” any more than there is a “Christian world.” There are individual countries with different histories, cultures, influences, pressures, economies, and political dynamics. In our own countries, we certainly recognize national, regional or even local differences, accents, dialects and perspectives. We ought to grant Islamic countries the same right to diverse ways of thinking and living as we observe and experience in the West.

I found my Muslim students in the Middle East were far less likely to over-generalize about the United States — to look at the headlines and say, for example, that America is too dangerous to visit because of all the guns and mass shootings.

Too frequently, Americans and Europeans mistake textbook theories and dogmas about Islamic terrorism for the reality of how people live. Shortly after shootings in Paris by jihadists, a Facebook friend posted a rant from DrHurd.com, written by PhD psychologist Michael Hurd: “Stop saying ‘Islam’ is about peace and love,” he wrote. “It’s not. It’s about submission.”

The first question I would ask him is, “Do not Christianity and Judaism, as well as other religions, and even 12-step programs, preach release from personal wilfulness and submission to the will of God or a higher power?” Of course they do.

Dr. Hurd goes on to over-generalize about the world’s one billion Muslims, claiming no moderate Muslims exist — a patently false statement. He writes that the entire religion of Islam, which has endured for 1500 years, is “psychologically toxic.” But does he claim to be a scholar or historian of Islam? No. Yet he and so many others write constantly of an apocalyptic struggle between the West and Islam.

Imagine if a psychologist posted that Christianity or Judaism were “psychologically toxic.” The religious bigotry of such a statement would not be in doubt.

Dr. Hurd and other Islamophobes make the same mistake of fear-mongers during the Cold War and Red Scare, which led to numerous nuclear confrontations that could easily have resulted in the end of the world as we know it.

As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I was certainly indoctrinated in the fear of communism. I remember my ninth grade civics teacher quoting Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev — “we will bury you” — and reciting a litany of countries that had fallen to “godless communism.” In the 1960s, many schoolchildren feared a Soviet nuclear attack and invasion of America.

In the late 1970s, I visited the Soviet Union as part of a study tour from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was shocked to find contradictions of communist theory around nearly every corner, and to see class-conscious, materialistic young communists parading the latest fashions. I began to see Russia not as a nation of automatons intent on fulfilling the Marxist dialectic and conquering the West but as a country that could barely organize and feed itself. And I found individual Russians to be lovely people, generous in spirit and from whom I could learn a lot.

Just as the West eventually overcame an inordinate fear of communism, I believe from my own experiences since moving to Turkey in 2009 and to the United Arab Emirates in 2011, and traveling widely throughout the region, that we will eventually overcome our inordinate fear of Islam.

That is, if we listen to the bridge-builders rather than the hysterical fear-mongers and apocalyptic thinkers. Europeans spent hundreds of years engaged in religious warfare, and Americans spent hundreds of years oppressing ethnic minorities. I hope we can avoid repeating those mistakes as we confront the reality of living with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

But to do that, Western civilization needs stories about positive interactions with Muslims and with Muslim nations. As Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian and speechwriter for President George W. Bush wrote in a Washington Post column:

Americans and Europeans should be offering a different narrative — a contest of shared values (including the values of most Muslims in the world) against a political death cult…

That is what I offer here: a different narrative about Muslims, with whom I felt, for the most part, I shared far more commonalities than differences. Living in and traveling to various Islamic countries has been a great eye-opener and a great adventure.

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