There is a saying that says, birds of a feather flock together. But I’d like to extend that quote to birds of the feather; any feather can flock together. The highlight of my trip was realizing throughout every nation and religion, and despite government’s influence of using political Islam instead of personal faith, we each have the ability to do life together through common humanity. My team diverse in opinion, sexual orientation, faith, intelligence, and creativity, but we were one in humanity. Did we allow our differences to disconnect us as a team? And further more, does political Islam affect personal faith?
I was accepted to attend a Muslim World Study Tour (thanks Halim and Griffith University) to visit Malaysia; Turkey, Spain, and Morocco with 14 other students, but in reality, I was accepted into a family and the eyes of my heart were opened. Personal faith, political Islam, common humanity and identity are key words that encapsulate my trip, along with fun, food, intense laughter, dancing and indescribable friendship. For the most part, Muslims in Australian media are perceived as; insular, unapproachable, terrorist figures, refugees and even portrayed as inhumane. Though this wasn’t my personal perspective and I tried to resist it, fear could still nudge it’s way in.
Sometimes Muslims are perceived as wanting to ‘take over the world’, but what I witnessed were people that wanted to make a living, drink tea and be comfortable.
Sometimes Muslims are perceived as wanting to ‘take over the world’, but what I witnessed were people that wanted to make a living, drink tea and be comfortable. They had a personal faith rather than a political agenda. A common phrase that influenced my thinking was, ‘personal faith and political Islam – there is a difference’. Some countries included stronger Islamic jurisdiction than others, using Islam as a political tool and stretching its authenticity rather than being secular but making ‘Islamic’ policy because it’s a reflection of the population’s wants.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister, noted the misuse of Islam saying, ‘It’s not religious, it’s political’. In Malaysia, systematic privileges are given to Muslim Malays using Islam as a political, economic and cultural tool. For example, special high earning interest trust funds for Malays. IIUM university speaker affirmed the identity politics and discrimination policies at play; if you are Malay and change faith you are no longer ‘Malay’. It is quite conservative. Other religions are tolerated and can practice but Sunni Islam is the national and right religion but locals insisted that faith should be personal.
Malaysia differed to Turkey, a secular government with a high Muslim population. Policy was based not on Islam but on people who are Islamic. The AKP representative said other faiths live peacefully, side by side with non-Muslims. But it’s seen as more inclusive of monotheistic faiths, not others (Malaysia is more diverse). Although there is freedom of religion, I spoke with two Catholic brothers in Taksim about conversions saying that many converts have ‘disappeared’. This might not be the government’s action but it could be honour killings from an intolerant culture of some Muslims. I had tea with another gentleman who had secular views and he spoke freely. This showed freedom of religion, but not all religions. There isn’t a freedom of Sufism, an offshoot of Islam, but Turkey does demonstrate more signs of personal faith rather than political Islam. Visually, Islam is prevalent in architecture and history being proud of the Ottoman Empire, which differed to Spain’s acceptance of history.
Spain is becoming more accepting of its Islamic history. Catholicism is the main religion, with little sight of Islam, and there is need for more recognition. I only saw one lady wearing a headscarf in Madrid’s central train station. There were no prayer rooms, sparse halal food with our only Muslim student getting a thorough and slightly invasive pat down at the airport without a translator or closure. Amongst that however, an Imam in Granada speaks of peaceful relations.
Spain differs to Malaysia in their sense of identity. The Imam at Granada Mosque said, ‘Spaniard first, Muslim second’. This reminded me of the challenges that Australian Muslims may experience regarding their identity. In Spain you sensed the genuineness of their conversion and it wasn’t government or politically orientated but a personal faith choice. Spain was also a happier and family friendly place with much playing in the street. In Turkey I hardly saw children but it could have been due to our location. Turkey was also male orientated in business, but in Spain saw more women working.
‘You can’t take Islam from Morocco or Morocco from Islam’
In Morocco, Islam is the state religion and majority of population. It is primarily Sunni but has strong Wahhabi Salafi influences but in daily life religion seems relaxed. A professor at EGE University said, ‘you can’t take Islam from Morocco or Morocco from Islam’. We weren’t aware if someone was wearing cultural clothing because of tradition or Muslim practice. Some Muslim young women didn’t wear a headscarf and it doesn’t denote their faith by doing so. It was quite fluid and varied in the interpretation but Islam is still central to their life. University students said that within higher education, they sought to learn about all religions and then make personal decisions. They said that culturally the ‘only options are to be Muslim, a Monotheistic faith or atheist; never acknowledging other religions.’ The professor mentioned that their beloved King, is the commander of the faithful (monotheistic faiths). I didn’t see other religious buildings or practices, although they may have existed. They appeared accepting of non-Muslims, entering mosques without restrictions unlike Malaysia or Turkey.
It comes down to people. Islam is first a religion, a faith, and a matter of the heart.
In conclusion, it comes down to people. Islam is first a religion, a faith, and a matter of the heart. It appeared that government could do as they wish, but when religion and government is intertwined it has the ability to discriminate. When faith is a personal choice, the freedom and flexibility to connect with the locals is far greater than it being institutionally influenced. Muslims are relatable and friendly people, not how they are represented in the media or by government policies. In Turkey I saw a dad run with a stroller chasing his young son in the Sultanahmet Square. His wife was also bursting with joy as they played. Muslims use selfie sticks, love tea, food and enjoy dancing (and some don’t). I loved watching a Moroccan businessman play with a disabled gentleman and look on him with love and affection. Tun Mahathir references football in his analogies. I love the way the Imam of a mosque in Granada said, with a genuine smile, ‘contact me anytime’. And it wasn’t just all about Muslims. There was an Indian family on a Malaysian train I smiled at and interacted with their small child – so friendly. We have a common humanity. Government will at times fail us, though they try their best… but it’s our responsibility to ensure that birds of any feather can flock together. That doesn’t mean we need to have everything in common. It’s easy for us to melt into comfort zones and not venture out to “the exotic” but we miss out on so much if we remain in our nest.
And I discovered myself. I learnt through my inner frustration of disliking rushing everywhere, but still grateful that we got to see so much at the same time and maximizing life. I learnt that I like to delay myself in some areas so I can take things in and actually interact with the locals. My heart broke if I had to rush along and miss an opportunity to talk, play or smile. I learnt how language is no barrier to a smile, a hug or a dance. There are some universal languages. I learnt not to “play it safe” but to seek out new opportunities (within boundaries). We can’t rely on others to know our heart and needs, we must make our own way. And when I stepped out, I drank lots of tea and my global family has grown in number!
To head back to where we started, preconceptions that highlight differences; how do we change that? As humans, we have them, but it’s dangerous and can rob us of experiencing a full life. Where there is fear, there is no connection. I began with having Muslim acquaintances at University and ended with having a Muslim lifelong friend. My future will be full of people I don’t understand, but I will continue to seek to understand and not to be understood and not harp on the details. Personal faith is a lot easier to work with and befriend than political Islam or institutions of religion. Can we share our humanity over a cup of tea or hot chocolate? If we could achieve this on that level, then is there potential for that to work on government stages? Life is too short to look at the differences. This trip has enlarged my capacity to love and has engaged me to see governments and policy are not an accurate reflection of the citizens and their desires (duh!).
We travelled to four countries, visited magnificent and significant historical sites, and met people with invaluable stories and vibrant personalities. But if you ask what my highlight was, I can look no further than my roommate and friends that became family. There is nothing like the present and while we look back on the past and appreciate and evaluate from present leaders, it’s all for the purpose of adding to the quality of life now. We can’t neglect the community around us – often they teach us the most. Its environments like the Muslim World Study Tour that is conducive to meeting these people and having purposeful and life experiences. Don’t neglect those who have different feathers, who look different, whose feathers are untamed, free, messy or some missing. Those are the birds; those are the people, who will change your world. They changed mine. Birds of any feather do flock together.