Lots of people ask me about religion, particularly what it was like to be a Christian in a Muslim-majority country. Moroccans were really curious about my religious views, and a majority of the Americans I’ve talked to about religion since I returned home have also been curious (in a non-threating way) about how religion affected my experience in Morocco. A lot of the questions I got in Morocco were about Ramadan—was I going to observe it, what did I think of fasting, etc. No one asked me to convert, no one threatened me, and most people assumed I wasn’t a Muslim and didn’t seem to have a problem with it. I think my “whiteness” or my “American-ness” were more evident and on the front of people’s minds than my religious affiliation.
One conversation in Morocco about religion caught me off guard—it was near the end of my trip, and it took place completely in Arabic. I was chatting with a Moroccan friend who mentioned to me that many Moroccans have stereotypes about Christians, just based on the actions of a few people on the news. I mentioned Westboro Baptist Church, thinking maybe their protests had made the news at one point. No, I was told—the stereotype was based on politicians. Weren’t most folks in the US Christians? Don’t political parties talk about religion? And, isn’t Christianity a religion that supports violence—I mean, after all, the US invaded Iraq, right? Christians must be violent people if they’re willing to fight such violent wars.
In the midst of our conversation, I took a moment to let the words sink in. Yes, its true that Christianity is the majority religion in the US, however not everyone who professes belief practices the religion actively. Yes, political parties use religious rhetoric in their platforms, but they don’t exclusively represent religion, and they talk about lots of other things—healthcare, infrastructure, and even traffic. And, no, just because Christians pick up guns and go to war doesn’t mean that Christianity as a whole supports war or violence. I’m a Mennonite and a Pacifist, and I certainly don’t think that any politician represents my religious views well. I don’t particularly look to politicians for spiritual leadership or examples; in fact, I don’t find politicians to be a good representation of any sort of moral character. I started to explain these ideas to my friend—and we had a really constructive conversation about how stereotypes and misunderstanding happen when people communicate across cultures and oceans and languages.
When I came home and explained my experiences to family and friends, many of them expressed surprise at the irony of the situation. A friend pointed out to me that many Americans view Muslims and Islam in the same way—as a violent religion led by politicians who speak for all followers of the religion, and who seek to proliferate war and violence. While those people do exist, they also exist in American culture—extremism isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to one ethnicity, race, religion, or country. Its also safe to say that the mainstream (the undecided middle, as we say in Political Science) exists and mostly ignores the extremists. This middle exists in Morocco, too. I ate dinner with a lot of people belonging to this group; I bought groceries from them, spend time chatting with them on the street, and rode in taxis with them. I like to say that Iowa is full of lots of “normal, everyday folks.” After this summer, I’d like to say, “Morocco is also full of lots of normal, everyday folks.”