Al Reyadi, Yemen: Photo Courtesy

Traveling Within the Borders of Islam

Admittedly, I don’t like my own title for this post. It’s far too generic for a complex, intricate part of the world that can’t be defined by geography. There are no real borders of Islam, but having spent much of my continuing travels over the past five years (and, depending on your definition, living) in the Middle East, I’ve realized more and more that there are many travelers put off by this invisible barrier. Of course, there isn’t even a consensus on the geographical area the Middle East encompasses (just ask the Turks or the Afghans), but it remains a vague mass of land and culture that intimidates many.

Perhaps in no other part of the world does religion play such a prominent role in people’s lives — but it’s only one facet of life there, much like everywhere else. And that importance simply can’t be the same for everyone there, because the entire Middle East isn’t Muslim, and it holds within it many variations of Islam itself.

The Middle East Isn’t a Homogeneous Place

Although Islam is the major religion across the Middle East, it’s far from the only one. There is of course Israel; but large Christian and Jewish minorities exist in many countries across the region. (Not to mention people who adhere to Druze, Yazidism, and other sects and beliefs.) Lebanon, for example, only has a 60% Muslim population, and Qatar has 75% (though more than half of the population is foreign-born). Egypt has a Christian population of over eight million, roughly 10% of the population, which means it has more adherents than the entire population of Ireland. There are also four major denominations within Islam itself, to break things down even further. While we’re at it, the entire Middle East isn’t Arab, with Turkey and Iran being two notable non-Arab exceptions.

Land of Images and the Wu Tang Clan

When you arrive at an airport in that loosely defined area behind the imaginary borders of Islam, you’ll almost certainly encounter women wearing a hijab (headscarf). At the same time, in places like the United Arab Emirates you’ll find women wearing veils sharing the streets with women in western attire. You’ll also find a very young population: nearly 65% of them are under the age of 30, and they’re absorbing the world through the Internet at a phenomenal rate. A greater percentage of the population in Dubai is online than all of Spain, France, or Italy; Iran has more people online than Egypt, Jordan, or Israel . . . combined.

While there is Internet censorship in many Middle Eastern countries, it’s easily circumvented by a generation that’s more tech-savvy than the censors themselves. Even when the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarek completely shut off that country’s Internet connection in 2011, people still found ways to get online. Where there is at least some freedom of information, there is change, modernity, and hope. All of these are gaining momentum across the Middle East right now through Ethernet cables and wireless signals. A transition toward more openness hasn’t been easy for most human societies, so it’s important to keep the present in perspective with history.

Recall that before and during the French Revolution, nearly 16,600 people were beheaded and 25,000 others executed during the Reign of Terror. In the United States, seventy-four years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, it took a Civil War to end slavery. Approximately 625,000 people were killed in that conflict — making it by far the bloodiest war in American history. After the Civil War, nearly a hundred years passed before segregation was outlawed, all citizens given equal voting rights, and discrimination of home buyers based on race made a crime.

Whether it’s working through conflicts over class, color, or religion, the path to an open and democratic society is an awkward, painful one that hardly ever takes a straight path. We just need to look beyond the imaginary lines we draw on maps to see them.

In the Middle East, it’s not necessarily assimilation of Western culture that’s going on, it’s an adoption of technology and the ideals of democratic institutions in a very Iraqi, Omani, or specifically local way. Whether it’s young Egyptians blasting their car radios and rapping along to the beats of Busta Rhymes, or organizing a Twitter revolution; it ain’t all camels and carpets.

In fact, it’s hardly that. Many of the friends I made in Egypt and Oman might do their daily prayers only occasionally (sheepishly admitting it’s not as often as they’d like) and afterward have their money on their mind, at least vicariously through Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

A Touchy Subject That’s Not Quite So

Particularly in the West, religion is often a charged subject that’s deflected or avoided, and that often arouses tension when brought up. Generally speaking, in the Middle East people aren’t as shy to talk politics or gods; to do so would be a glaring omission of religion’s omnipresence. People want to talk religion here, particularly with foreigners and travelers, mostly to get and give opinions about themselves and their culture, which they know are often misrepresented around the world. It’s what’s happening at a digital level on a personal scale, usually over tea and musty clouds of flavored shisha (hookah) smoke.

Reading about a place allows your imagination and mind to visit; but actually traveling there invites your other senses. So much of the culture in the Middle East goes beyond religion, which sits atop thousands of years of history and nuance. As I found in Iraq, what can be so unusual about a place is how normal it turns out to be. What sticks out is everything you got wrong prior to arrival, and what fascinates you is aligning that new truth with previous misconceptions. Few parts of the world can set you up for such a swing in perception, and those experiences are the ones that tend to shine brightest in our travels.

This post appeared in slightly different form on foXnoMad.

Anil Polat is a blogger, computer security engineer, and author of The Ultimate Tech Guide For Travelers. He’s always had a keen interest in culture, technology, and travel, and loves to pick things apart to see how they work. His travel blog foXnoMad teaches you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter, anywhere in the world.