Beliefs Culture Opinion

COMMENTARY: Going abroad, finding the peaceful spirit of Islam, breaking down stereotypes

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of RNS and a member of the board of World Vision.)

UNDATED _ Most people live quiet lives of faith, believing because they want to or need to in order to make it through each day.

But there are others who brandish belief as a weapon, sowing seeds of destruction in the name of religion. Their actions often grab headlines; their faith implicated by the violence.

Most Americans have been exposed to accounts of Muslim extremism more than they have read about _ or known _ the majority of peace-loving people who follow the teachings of the Koran and the example of Mohammad. I realized this very personally when I told my friends I would be traveling to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

My friends’ reactions ranged from concern to alarm. They worried about my safety and my sanity when I explained Mauritania is one of a handful of countries outside of the Gulf States which is governed by shari’a or Islamic law.

But it was partially because of this that I wanted to experience this land. I knew enough about the religion and the country to be more curious than frightened. And I wanted to see how Christian organizations like Caritas, Lutheran World Federation and World Vision are able to conduct humanitarian programs in a Muslim culture.

My only concern was that I would feel shut off from the culture and be shunned as an outsider.

That concern dissipated almost as soon as I arrived at the Nouakchott airport. The melange of African and Arab culture provided a rich tapestry of brilliant, flowing robes as a backdrop for multi-ethnic people who were both curious and friendly.

Most of the women I met were open and interested in comparing notes on our lives. They loved to look at the pictures of my boys and were curious about American customs.

Some of the men were more suspicious of me. American women are often viewed as being immodest and having loose morals. While some of the younger men would shake my hand when meeting me, others would discreetly place their hands together and bow.

When I greeted them with the traditional,”Salaam Alaikum,”they seemed pleased and replied,”Alaikum Salaam,”the Arab version of passing the peace. Observing the tradition in Arab cultures, I used only my right hand for greetings and eating, but soon abandoned my headscarf in favor of a brimmed hat to shield me from the dessert sun.

While most women discreetly covered their heads with a colorful gauze fabric called a mehlafa, they seemed unconcerned when it came undone and told me not to worry about covering my head since I was a visitor and they understood it was not my custom.

They good-naturedly endured my high school level French, and would fall back on sign language or full scale charades in order to carry on a conversation. Although some people in small towns only spoke Hassaniya, many knew enough French to communicate with outsiders.

A life-long coffee drinker, I nevertheless learned to enjoy the ritual of brewing and drinking the strong Mauritanian tea. By my second day I no longer winced after sipping the first, strongest cup which is said to be”bitter like life.”After that came the sweeter, milder brews which were savored before returning the cups to the communal tray.

And I even sat still long enough to have an intricate design stained on my hand with henna, an artistic and social ritual that can take hours to accomplish.

As my days in Mauritania came to an end, I was treated to a luncheon by some of the women who had received micro-enterprise loans from World Vision. Sitting on the ground around the large bowl, we ate couscous, chicken and vegetables with our hands, carefully forming balls of the mixture, which we then popped into our mouths.

The women complimented me on my growing prowess with the method and assured me everyone dropped some of the food as they kindly brushed my mess aside. I experienced once again the unique spirit of West African hospitality they call”teranga.” Feeling emboldened by their kindness and friendship, I haltingly asked them to tell me more about their beliefs and why Islam in their culture seemed characterized by awe of God and kindness toward strangers. I explained that many Americans knew only about Muslim extremists.

As the women deciphered my French, they smiled in understanding.”In Mauritania both men and women study the Koran,”explained one woman.”Because we understand the teaching of Islam, we know that we are to love, not hate. Those who use Islam for their own purposes are not truly following the way of Allah.” I thought for a moment about her words and told her I thought the same could be said about Christianity. Those who study our scriptures and come closer to God learn lessons of love.

She smiled in understanding and reached over to take my hand, still caked with grain.”We are sisters,”she said with a big smile.”We both believe in God.” I felt a wave of emotion as she embraced me. And I wished more Americans could experience the peaceful spirit of Islam as practiced by this woman and the many millions around the world who never make headlines for practicing their quiet faith.