Ever since I whiled away my 20s working in the Sudan and the Gambia, I’ve been interested in Islam and its relationship to my own nominally Christian cultural background.
So a week in Syria was the first opportunity that I had for many years to reconnect with the Muslim world. Thanks to one of my colleagues I was able to spend quite a bit of my spare time with local people in a non-work setting, and was struck by how they were all interested in finding out what I and others in ‘the West’ thought about Islam. Perhaps reflecting the fact that most of the world’s media is concerned with the threat posed by fundamentalist Islam, they asked me this, while it would seem unlikely that we might ask them what they think about the threat posed by fundamentalist Christianity. But that’s another story.
So I talked about how we in Britain seem to be struggling with what Islam means, that the mass media tends to group all Muslims together under a heading of fanaticism, that the media went crazy when one of our archbishops suggested we might one day need to accept elements of Sharia, and that there is a perception that all Muslim women are oppressed. I could go on.
This last point was of particular interest to one woman I talked to. She was a friend of one of my Budapest colleagues, and was as confident and outspoken about her life as any of the women I know from home. She is not married, has a senior job in a large company in Syria, manages men without any problem, and was quite happy to be in a restaurant alone with me. She laughed at the idea that she was repressed and instead talked about how Islam gives her a society with a moral code that actually gives her freedom. When I asked her about veils and burkas she pointed out that these were only a feature in countries where they had always been a part of life, and that they were not necessarily part of Islam.
People were also interested in Britain’s part in the Iraq invasion, and showed a very clear appreciation of the distinction between Britain, its people and its government. They were quite aware that most British people had been against the war and that we had become involved because of Tony Blair’s self-serving sycophancy. I’m not sure that we have been quite so good at distinguishing between people, nations and ideologies.
Perhaps I return to Budapest knowing even less than I did before. But what I reflect on is that if, based on their faith, we want to make assumptions about what people from this region are like, we should perhaps rather say that they are invariably warm, friendly and hospitable.