Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!
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