Pissed off about the Trump travel ban? Well let’s fight the travel ban with travel. What if all the badass indy travelers out there committed to visit a Muslim country for at least one week this year?
In addition to making a statement, this could be a lot of fun. I’ve lived in two Muslim-majority countries and traveled to eight more. And I have to say, I’m getting kind of addicted to them.
Now you might argue that our personal travels aren’t going to affect America’s terrifying foreign policy plans or help our president grow a brain cell.
And you’re right.
But here are a few reasons visiting a Muslim country this year would be good for both you and humanity.
1. You’ll show the locals that Americans are generally NOT racist, xenophobic, or religiously bigoted.
Now more than ever, it’s important for foreign Muslims to meet Americans who are compassionate, open, humble, curious, and respectful, and — maybe above all — pissed off about the hateful acts being perpetrated in our name.
The challenge is, Americans as a group don’t travel far beyond the beaten path.
Case in point: in 2012, my friend Lainy and I backpacked across Central Asia from Ashgabat to Bishkek. We met loads of travelers from Germany, England, Australia, Mexico, Japan, and Canada.
In two months, we met two other Americans. It was weird.
The sad thing about that is, it’s harder for anti-American sentiment to flourish in places where people meet Americans who act like decent, reasonable human beings.
A Case in Point
It may sound cheesy, but travel really does break down stereotypes.
Back when I managed student apartments, I was scheduled to pay a welcome visit on a guy from Saudi Arabia.
I’d never met a Saudi, and I sort of agonized over protocol. Should I wear long sleeves? And being a woman, should I keep things impersonal and businesslike? Would he even answer the door?
Well let me tell you, this was the best welcome visit ever. I walked in, and there were tea and cakes waiting. After I did my spiel about the apartment, we spent 30 minutes talking about school and TV and Arabia and our families.
It was the last thing I expected. Honestly, it really blew me away. (It also taught me a useful travel tip: when visiting an Islamic home, don’t expect to leave quickly.)
This happened right after 9/11. At the time there were a lot of negative messages about Saudis floating around and getting repeated in the media. But after that experience, they started sounding increasingly ridiculous.
And the more Saudi students I met in that job, the more I realized that most of our stereotypes about them are breathtakingly wrong and needlessly damaging.
So let’s stop leaving America’s PR to radical elements, the media, and Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Let’s get out there and show the Islamic world that a lot of us really do care.
2. You’ll have a chance to set the record straight.
America may not pay much attention to the rest of the world. So it always super surprises me how closely the world watches us.
When I lived abroad during the W. Bush years, small talk with locals almost always went like this:
Cabbie: Hi, where are you from?
Me: Denver. It’s in the USA.
Cabbie: Ack. How do you like Bush?
Me: I think he’s a lying, conscious-challenged, brain dead window licker. (Or equivalent in the local language.)
Cabbie: You know, it’s weird. Every American I meet says the same thing. What do you think of his statement about the establishment of a caliphate being the start of World War III?
Me: Wait … what?
Yeah, Indonesian taxi drivers would routinely know WAY more about American policy developments than this girl. It was very humbling.
So how do we explain the Trump administration to people we meet abroad?
First, it’s absolutely not necessary to have all the answers. Just speak from your own truth and experience.
Examples of useful light you can shed
- No, the protesters aren’t all paid. Or at least no one paid me when I protested! Look, here’s a picture of me with all my friends at the women’s march.
- No, this election didn’t necessarily represent the will of the people. We’ve got this really weird twist to our process… (Warning: If you can explain the electoral college in any foreign language, you are officially an MF-ing badass in that language.)
- Yeah, a lot of people did vote for Trump. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they support the hateful stuff he says. The hard truth is, there’s a lot of corruption in Washington, and America hasn’t been taking care of everyday, middle-class people the way it should. So a lot of people really hoped a political outsider could bring change.
I think that last one is a powerful point of commonality. People in many, many countries can completely relate to corrupt politicians screwing over the middle class (unfortunately).
For more on the joy of being a traveler during the W. Bush era, plus tips you can apply doubly to the Trump era, check out this totally brilliant post by Stephanie at Twenty-Something Travel.
3. Your fellow Americans need to see you do it.
When you announce your intentions to visit a Muslim country (and I really hope you will), there are probably people in your life who will be convinced you’ve gone completely batshit.
Here’s a representative conversation with my mom (who is actually quite well-traveled in her own right):
Mom: I really think you should wait a year before you go to [fabulous soon-to-announced destination]. People are going to be riled up by this travel ban thing.
Me: I think you need to give the people there more credit. They realize that Americans don’t always agree with our government.
Mom: And I think you need to realize that people are very angry right now.
Me: Sure. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to take it out on me. When you see someone in a hijab, do you automatically start harassing her because … terrorists?
OK, so I feel bad about picking on my mom, because she’s totally one of the good guys. She’s pretty openminded, and she’s making totally reasonable points here.
But I think we all probably know people who are really, really afraid. And unfortunately, I think that’s part of how our country got itself in this mess.
The Price of Fear
Right after the election, a friend wrote a long Facebook post about a radio program he’d heard. The correspondent was interviewing women who had voted for Trump.
One of them was a mom in Missouri, who was relieved by the election results. Her children were now safer from threats like ISIS, she said.
My Facebook friend’s response was something like:
So she’s afraid that ISIS is going to come to Missouri and hurt her kids. Meanwhile, every day I have to raise two multiracial kids in a country where racial tensions are boiling over and racists are empowered. I can’t even take them out to dinner without worrying that someone will say something hateful in front of them.
So yeah, there’s been a ton of fear-mongering going on around Muslims and Mexicans and immigrants that scares reasonable people into supporting candidates and policies they might not otherwise.
And when we let fear reign, people we know and love get hurt.
And that, my friend, is where you can do your part to save the world through travel.
Visit a Muslim-majority country. Take pictures. Blog about it. Facebook about it. Talk excitedly about it next year at Thanksgiving until everyone’s eyes glaze over Challenge the stereotypes that Muslims as a group are any more violent, misogynistic, bigoted, or hateful than the rest of humanity.
(In fact, in my personal experience, it’s quite the opposite. But that’s probably another blog post.)
Let’s face it. A lot of the frightened people in your life are not going to attend open house at a mosque or sign up for a course on comparative religions or even switch on NPR.
You might be the only one with a chance to reach them. So get busy and shine a light.
Hell Yeah, I Wanna Visit a Muslim Country! Where Should I Go?
There’s actually a bonus fourth reason you should visit a Muslim country: a lot of them are just plain awesome. And with 49 Muslim-majority countries in the world, you definitely have plenty of choices.
Some of my fav memories of living abroad are from Kyrgyzstan, which takes Muslim hospitality to an extreme. (As in your taxi driver will invite you home for dinner and the whole village will crowd into your house to welcome your parents.)
And if you’ve never heard a real-life prayer call, it’s totally time. Former president Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a kid, said it was one of the most beautiful sounds in the world to him. (Indonesia is a great place to hear it, because there are tons of little neighborhood mosques that all call at the same time — sort of.)
For more ideas, definitely check out this post by Amanda at A Dangerous Business travel blog. It’s a roundup of travel posts and photos from Turkey, Oman, Jordan, Sudan, and even Iran (yes, Americans can go there).