During the past ten months I was fortunate to study and live together with Muslims from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia at the College of Europe in the generally not so Islam-friendly Poland. By sharing thoughts with them, my perception of the world has drastically changed. It convinced me even more that religion is not a barrier to close friendships. This is my personal story.
In this personal story I will not write about Muslims in general. It would be completely wrong to claim that my encounters with people from a different religion are representative for everyone who has ever lived in a multicultural environment. I will write about specific persons who grew up in a Muslim country and are trying to make a career in Europe. I will write about how those people have taught me valuable life lessons. I will write about how opening your mind and respecting different worldviews can be the key to close interreligious friendships.
I was not predetermined to ever establish friendships with Muslims. Growing up in a conservative Belgian family, I was ought to be very suspicious of people who spoke Arabic, prayed five times a day and wore headscarves. For a long time I thought that Muslims wanted to impose their own traditions on me. Therefore I had to counter every cultural difference. The best strategy not to be influenced by their behaviour was not to have any contact with them. Why would I listen to their opinions? Why would I try to engage in a discussion? Why would I eat what they ate?
Until one of my classmates invited me at his house to celebrate the end of the Ramadan. Although my parents were not really happy, I went out of curiosity. I loved it. Their hospitality was so heart-warming that I started to rethink what I had thought before. Afterwards I went, as many Europeans do, on a holiday to Tunisia to enjoy the beach, sea and sun. Despite the touristic atmosphere I experienced the same hospitality and felt very much at ease. In more recent years I started working together with young Muslims as a journalist. More and more I became interested to understand how they were actually thinking and living – independent of the stereotypes, which are widespread.
When I arrived at the Polish campus of the College of Europe in September, I arrived in the most multicultural environment in which I will probably ever live. For ten months I would live together with 120 students from almost 30 different countries in the so-called Golden Cage. I greeted Italians, French and Germans. I shook hands with Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians. And then… I was welcomed by intense Egyptian, Moroccan and Tunisian hugs and kisses. As a more reserved Belgian it came as quite a surprise. I did not know how to react, when they brought their hand to their heart and bowed a little bit towards me to show their respect.
But I wanted to open myself for the cultural differences. At the beginning it felt very uncomfortable to enter in the other’s intimate space. Clumsily I tried to adapt to their greetings. I had to touch more and accept their touching. What I always had perceived as a threat now felt very consolidating. I noticed how I spontaneously changed my own behaviour towards other people. I did not just say hello, but I tried to engage in a more meaningful greeting. I did not just ask how they were doing as mere social contact, but I really wanted to know how they were feeling. I realized how superficial my own normal environment in fact had become. How the real interest for the other person had disappeared.
I especially noticed it when my grandfather died and the Muslims in the campus were the first ones to express their sympathy. Or when I was sick and they were the first ones to bring me medicines. Or when I came to their room and they insisted to accept their gifts, food and drinks. Their hospitality felt so good that I understood what was lacking in my own life and what I had to bring back. When I told them about my own problems or when I listened to their personal stories, I realized that I did not appreciate my own individualistic lifestyle anymore. That expressing your emotions is not wrong. That honesty is what defines real friendship. That solidarity matters.
And more importantly, that religion and different values are not a barrier. The most beautiful moment was when I visited, together with my friend from Tunisia, a Christian mass just before Christmas. He stayed for one hour in the church and looked at everything what was happening. He did not judge, only discovered. Several times he told me how surprised he was that Muslims and Christians shared a lot of the same values and stories. By saying that he proofed to me that religion is a personal choice, and not a belief system that prevents you of having certain principles and norms in common.
Having that perspective in mind, I spent long evenings discussing with Muslims about sex, gay rights and religious symbols. They were always very reluctant to cite the Quran, and explained their opinion more from their cultural tradition. I listened how they told me that they had nothing against people with a different sexual orientation, but that it remained difficult for them to accept the concept. I talked with my Egyptian friend about her headscarf. She told me how uncomfortable she found it to wear one in Europe and how she was struggling to be accepted in Europe. I realized that wearing a headscarf is again a very personal decision, which is influenced by many factors. She eventually decided to take off her headscarf, but I still feel how emotionally attached she is to her veil.
In most cases I did not agree with their opinions about gay and feminist rights, but I respected their different world views and did not want to impose my own vision on them, because I knew that they showed respect and tolerance towards my opinions. I understood that aggressively demanding a mentality change does not work and takes time. I realized that cultural difference is something to cherish. Uniformity gives a false feeling of comfort, because eventually even people from the same cultural and social background do not agree on certain topics. I also learned that the diversity in the Muslim world is probably even bigger than amongst Christians. That not all Muslims still pray five times a day. That there are Moroccan atheists and Lebanese Christians as well.
By being so close with Muslims, people were literally afraid that I would convert to Islam. It would confirm their stereotype that Muslims want to conquer the world. I will not become a Muslim. But I will try to enrich my personality with some of their Islamic values. I have learned to be less individualistic. I have learned to express my emotions more clearly. I have learned to be more open towards other people.
This article is written by Laurens Soenen