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Politics

Muslim for a Month

4 July 2011

Muslim for a Month

By Gwynne Dyer

Gandhi, born a Hindu, once said: “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Most people will never achieve such enlightenment (or spout such pious tripe, if you are of a less reverent turn of mind). But such thinking certainly creates an opening for innovative programmes like “Muslim for a Month.”

No, really. There is an organisation that invites people of other religions or none to come to Istanbul and live as Muslims for a month. Well, not a month, exactly: the 9-day “Explorations” programme costs $900 and the 21-day “Ruminations” programme costs $1890.

“We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press,” explained Ben Bowler, who lives in Thailand and runs similar “religious immersion tours” in Buddhism for the same organisation. “There’s a huge difference in the public perception of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy.”

People who think Buddhism is warm and fuzzy would probably benefit from Bowler’s “Monk for a Month” programme in Thailand. People who think that Islam is a religion of hatred and terrorism would likewise benefit from the “Muslim for a Month” programme. Indeed, if all that’s going on here is a simple download of information and perspective, you could argue that every religion should be doing it.

Much of the human race lives in places where two or more major religions co-exist – Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in South Africa. Not to mention countries where up to half the population are non-believers (like Britain and Korea). A crash course in your neighbours’ religious beliefs ought to be part of the school curriculum. In some places, it already is.

But there is still something disturbing about the very idea of religious tourism. Immersing yourself in the prayers and rituals of a religion EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK ITS GOD IS FALSE smacks of condescension at best, blasphemy at worst. And although a sense of politeness prevents most people from saying it loudly in public, religious people generally believe that the gods of all religions but their own are indeed false.

Non-believers go even further. As Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading advocate of atheism, once put it: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that people have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Fine. That’s a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if that’s what you think, then pretending to pray to Allah as a “cultural experience” is downright disrespectful.

The people who are organising “Muslim for a Month” have the best of intentions. The Blood Foundation is a Thailand-based enterprise whose goal is “to promote the ideal of the sister/brotherhood of all humanity. We operate cultural exchange programs that build bridges of understanding between diverse peoples through the means of shared, authentic experience.”

According to the Blood Foundation, the “Muslim for a Month” programme aims “to foster a spirit of good will and increased mutual understanding between Muslims and the west. It is not the purpose of the program to bring converts to the Islamic faith but rather to strive towards a greater sense of unity among people.”

I believe that that is truly their goal. I also very much like the Sufi tradition of Islam, one of the most attractive forms of religious expression that I have ever encountered, and it is the Sufis who are providing the facilities and the teachers for the “Muslim for a Month” programme in Turkey. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Here’s the thing. Almost all of the “modern” religions that have arisen in the past 2,500 years (and Judaism, which is much older) have sacred texts that are held by the believers to be divinely revealed truth. They are not negotiable or mutually compatible, like the old pagan beliefs were. To believe in any of the modern gods requires the faithful to reject all the others as false.

If Muslim beliefs are right, then Christian beliefs are wrong, and vice versa. If the Sikhs are right, then the Baha’i are wrong, and vice versa. If the Buddhists are right, then the Jews are wrong, and so on ad nauseam.

Why stop there? If the Mormons are right, then all the other Christians are horribly, catastrophically wrong. If any of the other Christian sects (or any of the non-Christian faiths) is right, then Mormon beliefs are downright ridiculous. If the Shia are right, then the Sunnis are wrong, and vice versa. So in a world where something like 90 percent of the population is still religious (though much less in the developed countries), what is one to do?

We minimise conflict by simply not talking about the huge, irreconcilable differences in our religious convictions. (The non-religious play the same game: they rarely challenge the beliefs of the believers either.) It’s not an attractive behaviour, and it doesn’t always avert conflict, but most of the time it works. On most of the planet, we are no longer at each other’s throats about religion.

The world does not need “Muslim (or Sikh, or Christian) for a Month.” Let sleeping dogs lie.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“According…people”; and “Why…do?”)