“I want to travel to the UK too, but I’m scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“You know. Bombs and stuff. I could die.”
“Well, you can die anywhere. Even in your own home.”
We were talking about future travel plans but I didn’t know how to resume normal conversation after that. I was in between feeling flabbergasted at such a reasoning, and feeling the need to straighten things out. I understand the sentiment, I truly do, but I believe in a reaction greater than this, and I wanted to say it out loud.
Fear is what they want.
When I got to know of the Ankara bombings, my heart sank a little. Barely saw the news of the attacks in Ivory Coast. Then Brussels came. And yesterday, Lahore. I’m not sure what is an appropriate reaction anymore. Especially as a Muslim. Do we continue to stand outraged? Do we extend sympathy or try empathy? Do we let out a sigh and hastily move on with life?
I understand how the heart can get desensitized and cold to such news, especially when they seem so distant. People care for a while, and then continue with their daily grind.
But if after getting through the initial shock we are still holding on to fear – subconsciously or otherwise – then it is very troubling, because fear is exactly what the terrorists want! Technically, you are more likely to be killed by mundane things than in terrorist attacks. Terrorist attacks are organised attempts to sow panic and make terrorists seem more powerful than they really are. Why do we keep giving it to them?
I remember being in Manchester during the aftermath of the Woolwich (London) terror attacks, and receiving plenty of emails and texts from well-meaning people who tell me to stay home, to go out only in groups, and to stay away from the public eye for my own safety. But I refused to hide – I still walked to the mosque 10 minutes away from my dorm for evening prayers, I still went to Curry Mile for biryani, and I still wore my hijab proudly to classes. I knew then that that was the time to let love and light shine through, to let others know that the attacks do not define my faith, and to assure them that there is nothing about me to fear.
In a world where ignorance and terror reign free in the mainstream narrative, it is never a more important time to provide a counter-narrative. The loud language of violence and hate needs to be silenced by a clearer rhetoric of love, understanding and shared humanity.
I also believe that there isn’t a better time than now to travel. Travel fosters understanding and empathy for people whose lives are different from us. It opens our eyes (and hearts) to differences, including other cultures and religions. But more importantly, it allows other people to know who we are. They get to see actual people, in flesh and blood, instead of the caricature of the ‘Other’ propagated by fear-mongers. Keeping behind the safety of our own doors and community isn’t going to be helpful. Insularity isn’t the answer – it’s the reason why and how hardliners come to play in the first place. It’s keeping people ignorant.
We need to let others in.
As a Muslim woman who travels solo, I am very aware that my hijab (tudung is hijab in the Malay language) is a clear sign of my faith. I carry it proudly, and I strive to carry myself well. Even though my faith is a crucial part of who I am, I am more than just a label conveniently tossed around. I love making connections with others as we make eye contact and indulge in thoughtful conversations and dialogue. I have had people telling me that their perception of Muslim women as being submissive and trodden were shattered after knowing me. One of the best responses I’ve gotten was one after having dinner with some hostel mates: “Hey, you’re really smart. You’re just like the rest of us.”
So this is something that I’ve realised – it is important to allow other people in. Besides travelling, brilliant initiatives such as “Ask a Muslim” and “Islam Awareness Week” (normally held in universities) are alternatives that can encourage dialogue and increased awareness.
The way other people treat us depends a lot on how we show up
People will naturally mirror our actions. I have learnt that if you are open, friendly and genuine, then other people will treat you the same way. I don’t make my hijab an issue, so they don’t make it an issue. Most of the time, the travellers I meet on the road barely bat an eyelid about my hijab. To them, I am what I am – a fellow traveler, trying to figure things out as I go along.
I have learnt that I need to teach people how to treat me, by doing exactly how I would like to be treated. When you greet others with a smile, with an open posture and with a glint in your eyes, you invite others to treat you the same way. When you close yourself off to others, well, people are too caught up in their own lives to bother prying their way in. They fall back on stereotypes and ingrained beliefs.
I’m not saying that all is easy and well. I have met people who say to my face to take off my hijab. Once, an elderly man accosted me in a park in Sevilla, but all I could do in shock was to smile and walk away. I had to keep telling myself to send love his way. Barely 5 minutes later, I walked past a stall where the owner motioned to me to come near. All the while having a huge smile on his face, he handed me a handful of caramelised macademia nuts and ushered me along to go my own way.
Despite all the hate and cautious stares I’ve received, I’ve also met so many beautiful souls who see beyond the hijab and embraced my presence.
Other people are genuinely interested in Islam
Let’s face it – all the media attention Islam is getting is causing many people to be curious.
The hijab is a very real symbol of my faith, and people often get curious. Especially in today’s media-saturated world, it is not surprising how little people actually know about what Islam truly stands for.
Instead of being a hindrance, my hijab has led to many wonderful conversations about faith, religion and humanity. In the common spaces of hostels, I have spoken about Islam with people from different walks of life and of different faiths. Each time, I walk away with a renewed conviction in my faith and a stronger desire to keep learning about it. It has also made me realize the importance of open dialogue. We are, after all, all humans to begin with.
I have had many women travelers ask me to teach them how to wear the hijab, and I’d gladly oblige. The wonder in their eyes the very first time they try on the hijab is something I will always hold dear to my heart.
Who saw my thoughts and feelings as equal, and who saw that Islam is not to be feared.
Who walked and explored places with me, and learnt from each other.
I have seen people who choose love.
Travelling is very much a part of the Islamic tradition – from the Prophet’s travelling for business pre-prophethood to the migration to Madinah, to scholars crossing great distances to learn and to teach. Imam ash-Shafi’i, one of the four great jurists, believed in travelling for both the body and soul and lauded the benefits of travel in the following poem:
The Benefits in Travelling
Leave your country in search of loftiness
And travel! For in travel there are 5 benefits,
Relief of adversity and earning of livelihood
And knowledge and etiquettes and noble companionship
Travel therefore is not an anomaly in Islam. There are plenty of verses in the Quran that instruct us to walk the earth, observe His creations, reflect upon past civilisations, and get to know different nations and people.
There is a call to acknowledge and appreciate diversity amongst people. Islam does not advocate one culture, nor does it eliminate all forms of culture from its believers.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [al-Hujurat: 13]
In a world where interaction among diverse cultures is becoming the norm, it is unfortunate that divisive lines and prejudice are also becoming more rampant. Instead of getting to know one another and respecting differences, the world is becoming more ill with fear and injustice. So we travel to understand and to learn to respect differences in Creation. This is aptly worded by Mark Twain when he wrote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
In a world filled with bleakness, we must be brave in shining light. Today, more than ever, I am convinced that we have the power to do what is right, to stand up for the weak, and to always be a blessing to others.
“The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.” – Paul Krugman, The New York Times
So please, keep on travelling. Travel far, and travel wide.