Before I traveled abroad, it was easy to disdain or ridicule religious differences and conflicts like the Jewish-Muslim-Orthodox-and-Evangelical-Christian conflict in Palestine, the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland or the Sunni-Shia conflict in Middle Eastern Islam. “Why can’t they just get along?” I would grouse impatiently. America, on the surface at least, seems to be a very religiously tolerant place if you don’t wear your religion by ostentatious appearance or are not too outspoken and reveal yourself to be a zealot, fanatic, or just nuts.
Living abroad, I encountered many people who do reveal their religion by their appearance or by attention-getting behavior in public. I learned to respect various religions and try to view them phenomenologically, from the inside out, from the perspectives of their participants rather than to make external judgments based on my reaction to their appearance, or my own culture and preconditioning.
From eight years living in the Middle East, I lost my fear, even terror, of Islam, a 1500-year-old religion. My wife and I heard the daily call to prayer as hauntingly beautiful. I developed strong friendships with Muslims, even going on a pilgrimage with them to holy sites in Southern Turkey that were shrines to shared (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) prophets Abraham and Job. (Click to read.) We were frequently invited to weddings of our Muslim colleagues and students.
Living in a community of so-called conservative Muslims in central Anatolia, I began to identify with the young Christian missionary from Iowa who moved to Turkey and was transformed by the altruism and generosity of the Turkish Muslim souls she was assigned to save. She concluded that she was far more likely to be saved by them than to save them. Her piece, “Failed Missionary,” appeared in the 2006 book, Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey.
Proselytizing is frowned upon in many if not most countries and I could see why — in ancient lands, it had been a frequent source of violent conflict. But exchanging ideas and beliefs about religion in an open-minded way with people of different faiths can lead to respect and tolerance if not enlightenment.
In the six years I lived in Abu Dhabi, UAE, I spent a considerable amount of time engaging in interfaith dialogue with Muslims, which I wrote about here.
After visiting Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, I began to engage with quotes from the Buddha and found universal truths or aphorisms that made me think. Yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in my understanding of Buddhism.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, I learned that “studied empathy” for the experiences of Muslims, Christians and Jews was the only way to be a bridge-builder rather than a contributor to the historic divide. In Jerusalem, my wife and I were led around the holy sites of the Old Quarter by a Muslim tour guide, a retired school teacher. Once we completed the tour, I dashed to a nearby ATM to pay him, but it refused to dispense funds in shekels, the local currency. No worries, he said, let’s go to lunch and you can pay me later. He paid for our lunch, and trusted us to meet him later in the afternoon to pay his fee. That was an experience of bridge-building.
Later, my wife and I strolled through Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the city, established in 1874, home to the most faithful of the Orthodox or Haredi Jews, who strictly reject secular culture. For dinner, my wife and I feared that an Orthodox restaurant might not allow women inside, or would not allow men and women to sit at the same table. We were pleasantly surprised about that. The waiter nodded for us to sit down together for a bland but hearty meal of dumplings. This too was an experience of bridge-building.
Studying Turkish, Arabian and European history, I realized that our religious beliefs (or lack of them) are not simply the result of individual decisions but at least somewhat products of culture and history. Standing next to ancient walls in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, in Asia but just a 10-minute boat ride from Europe, I began to imagine what might have happened if those walls hadn’t held. What if Islam swept through Europe? How would a Muslim Europe change history? Might I be Muslim today?
What if the Protestant Reformation had been averted? Might I be Catholic today?
Spending a month in Scotland and studying religious conflict over the centuries, I wanted to learn how religious beliefs evolved, from the druids to the followers of St. Columba; to Celtic Christians, how the population dealt with orders from on high to abandon Catholicism for Anglicanism; and the bloody conflicts over religion among various Protestant sects.
In Ireland, I got a glimpse of the lingering conflict between Catholics and Protestants when an older gentleman presumed, because of my ancestral heritage, that I was a Protestant like him. “You and I, we’re not like them,” he said disdainfully, pointing to some rowdy drinkers, presumably Catholic. I barely realized that by enjoying boisterous toasts with my Irish Catholic hosts, I as a man of Protestant heritage was engaging in a form of bridge-building.
In a classroom in Abu Dhabi, UAE I outlined some of the different schools of Islamic thought, which led to a discussion among students about differences between Sunni and Shia, and whether Shia were really Muslims. They thankfully agreed that their fellow students, even Shia, were indeed Muslims, just a different kind. I knew to stay out of such discussions. The students were building bridges in that classroom that would not be easy outside of it.
And now that I am back in the US, in small-town North Carolina, I encounter conservative and fundamentalist Christians, and Trump supporters who haven’t had the travel opportunities I’ve had. Some initially look askance when I tell them I have lived in Muslim and Arab countries, as if I have been communing with the enemy. My two Arabic Sakuki dogs are the biggest ice-breakers or bridge-builders. They attract a lot of interest. In time it is clear that most of the neighbors I encounter here in America, no matter their religious persuasions or political beliefs, are salt-of-the-earth people, capable of great generosity when they see beyond stereotypes, when their fears are not stirred up.
As a foreigner or a newcomer, by simply asking questions or socializing with people of different cultures and religious heritages, you have an opportunity to be a bridge-builder. By asking them to help you understand their cultural and religious practices in a larger national and international context, you are asking them to step outside themselves. Like my Muslim, Christian and Jewish friends in the Middle East, their answers can demonstrate an empathy and understanding of their fellow countrymen that is surprising.