Four weeks in Thailand taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world. I’ve always known that I’m impatient, that I don’t suffer fools lightly, that I have a sometimes irrational fear of getting lost. (But as the inimitable EK has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, I’m never lost if I know what country I’m in.) Thinking myself open to all religions, I was surprised at how out-of-place I felt on the predominantly Muslim island of Koh Yao Noi. I wasn’t expecting anyone but Buddhists, given that the country is predominantly Buddhist, and perhaps had I done my research, I’d have been better prepared, mentally prepared, but I was caught on the hop for the complete reversal in statistics: 96% Muslim.
I found myself wondering if I was dressed appropriately. Tank tops and vests were out but could I show my shoulders if wearing a knee-length dress? How long did my shorts have to be? Should I cover my head? I didn’t want to offend. I was very much aware that when in Rome … Buying booze in the village and being handed it in a black plastic bag accompanied by a frown of disapproval had me feeling like an errant teen trying to pull a fast one. I felt a strange unease at hearing the call to prayer as I lay on the beach, no doubt scantily clad by someone’s yardstick. That other tourists had no problem walking around in shorts and vests made no odds. I wasn’t feeling awkward for them – just for me. I missed the Buddhists and their temples. Those I felt almost at home in. Not here. And yet it was nothing anyone did or said. They couldn’t have been nicer. The smiles, though timid, were real. The welcome, while not effusive, was there. I wondered if I’d become conditioned to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and had absorbed some of the irrational fear it aims to induce. I had a major rethink on my hands.
A few days in Doha on the way back added to my mental angst. But for that, I was prepared. I knew I was entering a Muslim country and had rejigged by thought patterns accordingly. I wasn’t walking around in shorts or sunbathing on a beach. I was covered. I had a handle on it. I was struck by the numbers – 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants are expats. Foreign. There are twice as many Indians as there are Qatari, with a fair representation from Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and more. Fascinating. Such diversity. And yet the diversity wasn’t as obvious as I’d have expected, lost as it is in the religion. The majority are Muslim.
The Muslims I know are moderate in their religious practice, a lot like the pick-and-mix Catholic I am. And the Koran, like the Bible, is open to selective reading. [I came across this fascinating article in the Telegraph What the Koran really says about women.] Yet I’d never choose to live in a country whose societal rules and norms differed vastly from what I am used to. Azerbaijan and I didn’t part friends. But India and I have a lovely relationship. The outward trappings of the Muslim world are difficult for me to understand, to get to grips with. Would I want to feel this level of discomfort in my own country? No. Do I want to wake up one morning and find my church bells drowned out by calls to prayer? No. (I wonder, though, what that would sound like and if they could be scheduled at different times?) Do I want to find myself in a minority? No. Does that make me anti-migrant? Does it make me racist? Does it make me intolerant? I have a pain in my head trying to figure it all out.
The Dalai Lama was accused of bigotry when he suggested that refugees return to their home countries to help rebuild them and leave Europe for Europeans. It surprised me when I heard what he’d said, particularly as he himself is a refugee. Is that what this is about? The difference between migrant and refugee? The former someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life, the latter someone who has been forced to flee their home country because of armed conflict or persecution. I understand the Dalai Lama’s comments to mean that refugee status is temporary, until the situation at home is resolved and people can return safely. Migrant status seems more permanent. I’m an economic migrant, I should know.
As a new wave of refugees set forth on a long journey towards a better life, I’m here examining my conscience and giving serious thought to what’s going on in South Korea on the island of Jeju where Yemeni refugees are getting a less than hospitable welcome from conservative Christian groups. Yes. Those who by virtue of their faith should be welcoming are crying Go home. There’s no room at the inn.
I read the NYT and watched a short video following one woman heading from Honduras to what she hopes will be a better life in the USA. Another from Channel 4 following the caravan currently walking through Mexico. The debate about asylum seekers and economic migrants rages and the media are playing to the gallery. Could there be would-be terrorists in these groups? Certainly. Just as there could have been on the plane from Bangkok or Doha or anywhere. But is it really terrorists or migrants or refugees or Muslims or conservative Christians (or….) that we are afraid of? Or is it simply the uncertainty of the times in which we’re living? Would we prefer to switch back to our pre-globalisation days where few people travelled abroad and letters took weeks to arrive? What is that we’re really afraid of?
This week, I’m grateful that travel makes me question what I take for granted. That it forces me to examine not only what I think but why I think it. And that both, in turn, give me a more balanced take on the world.