The lobby of our hotel in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia was lavishly decorated with leather, glass, and marble. When the elevator door opened, I saw a young woman standing inside, wearing a black floor-length robe, a black scarf over her hair, and a black veil that covered her whole face, except for her eyes. I froze; I didn’t know what to do. Should I enter the elevator or not? Then, after the briefest pause, the young woman looked at me and asked matter-of-factly in English, “What floor are you going to?” “Third,” I said, and entered the elevator. My dilemma was solved.
Last spring I spent a month in Saudi Arabia with a small group of Bates College students. We visited Dhahran, the center of the oil industry on the Persian Gulf; Riyadh, the conservative capital in the center of country; and Jeddah, the more liberal, cosmopolitan port of entry for the millions of pilgrims – “guests of God” – who have traveled to the holy city of Mecca from all over the Muslim world for 1,400 years. The narrow streets of the old city of Jeddah are full of people from Yemen, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In several empty lots I saw Somali boys playing soccer while their mothers sat on nearby doorsteps talking with their neighbors.
Many Americans have dangerously inaccurate views about Islam. A well-known politician who visited Bates last year told students that Muslims were “fundamentally different from Americans.” This is clearly not true. Many Muslims are Americans, and many Americans are Muslims. Perhaps he meant to say that Muslims are fundamentally different from Christians. But this is not true either. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are “People of the Book,” since they believe in one God and share a common religious tradition that includes the Torah, the Old and the New Testaments, as well as holy figures such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Noah, Moses, and Jesus.
Any view that sets up a fundamental opposition between different “kinds” of people – Black and White, Christian and Jew, Protestant and Catholic – must be avoided at all costs. Dichotomies like this distance and dehumanize “other” people; they can also lead to the kind of violence we know from South Africa, Nazi Germany, and Northern Ireland. Such a view also implies incorrectly that all Muslims are somehow “the same;” it ignores the tremendous diversity that exists within a Muslim world that includes countries as different as Morocco in North Africa, Albania in Europe, and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.
This same politician told Bates students that all Muslims, unlike all Christians, believe that the Qur’an must be taken literally and is not subject to interpretation. Again this is not true. Muslims have just as wide a range of understandings of the Qur’an as Christians do of the Bible. In addition to the two major divisions of Islam – Sunni and Shia – there are four major, and many minor, schools of Sunni Islam, as well as a mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism. Followers of some forms of Islam do not even consider followers of other forms to be real Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil reserves and powerful military, is one of the most important countries in the Muslim world. It is a totalitarian state ruled by an absolute monarchy. Saudi citizens do not enjoy many of the rights that Americans take for granted, such as the right to elect their leaders and the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. This unfortunate situation is not a result of the fact that Saudi Arabia is Muslim country, any more than the fact that some Central and South American countries are totalitarian states is a result of the fact that they are Christian countries.
During our stay in Saudi Arabia we encountered people with many different interpretations of Islam. Some Saudis said that the Qur’an forbids women from driving. Others said that the Qur’an does not forbid women from driving. Still others said that the ban on women driving is the product of a traditional patriarchal society and has nothing at all to do with Islam. A group of Saudi university students I spoke with disagreed strongly about whether I, as a Christian, could touch the Qur’an. One young man told me I could not touch the Qur’an since I was not “clean.” When I protested, he modified his position: “I was not spiritually clean.” I protested again, and he said: “I was not spiritually clean in a Muslim way.” To this I agreed. A young Saudi woman dismissed his whole argument out of hand. Of course I could touch the Qur’an. How else could I learn about Islam?
We met Saudi Muslims who reminded me of conservative fundamentalist Protestants, others who reminded me of mainstream Catholics, and still others who reminded me of liberal Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. One Saudi woman claimed that scientists have proven that homosexuals are immoral and that God had sent AIDS to punish them for their evil ways. A few days later a highly respected Sufi leader told us that life should be based on the principal of balance. “The Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, and the Qur’an,” he said, “are our tools to create balance and order in society. Unity in diversity is an example of balance. Jews and Christians and Muslims share a great deal. Islam is the religion of freedom. Allah is the God of everyone, even people who don’t believe in Him. We are trying to share our love with you right now – Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans.”
On our last day in Dhahran we visited a mosque at the invitation of a young Saudi man who had a bushy black beard and wore a long white robe. “We’re so happy you guys are here with us today,” he said, welcoming us to his mosque. “We have differences in culture, but this is an opportunity for us to get together and resolve our differences.” Then the imam, the leader of the mosque, invited us to attend the mid-day prayer. A group of twenty men gradually formed two lines across the mosque. A businessman in a coat and tie stood next to a construction worker wearing a sweat-stained robe and ragged turban. They held up their open palms in prayer, knelt down and touched their foreheads to the red carpets that covered the floor, and rose to their feet again.
A few days after our return to Lewiston, I was walking down Lisbon Street early on a Friday afternoon. I saw a Somali man who had been a student in the English class I teach at the Adult Learning Center. Services at the mosque had just let out. He was excited to hear that I had visited Saudi Arabia. He had lived in Jeddah for two years before coming to the United States and settling in Lewiston.
In the end, Muslims and Christians – like members of other religious, political, or ethnic groups – are different in many ways. But they are also very similar; they share a common humanity. This is the paradox of cultural diversity. The world is very large, but it is also very small. Lessons learned in Saudi Arabia can be put to good use on Lisbon Street.