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An Open Letter To Muslims Who Are Afraid To Travel

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Becky Ilham  •  Feb 23, 2017

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Dear My Fellow Muslim Travelers, Are you hesitating again? It’s not that you lack wanderlust, the desire to move, to explore and to discover, but you just can’t get over the perceptions that it’s a scary world out there. And it’s intimidating enough that one last click to purchase the ticket to your dream destination feels like an insurmountable task.
Credit: giphy I hear you. These days, it seems like waking up to horrific news is a norm, instead of an exception. What – another shooting in the US? Oh, not another bombing in Turkey! And a series of vehicle attacks in parts of Europe last year is also making us think twice about travelling to those places.
 All of these have been claimed and linked to Muslim individuals, and organizations claiming to fight for our religion. We know better that they are anything but. Islam is a religion of peace, and it has been hijacked by those who are only interested in propagating their personal distorted agenda. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we’re spared the repercussions. Hostilities towards Muslims are nothing new, but since the September 11 incident, it had been greatly accelerated. The harassments are not only verbal, but have turned physical as well. With politics thrown into the mix, religious profiling and legalized Muslim ban (yes, I’m talking about Donald Trump!) do nothing to abate the already grave situation. Then, if you did get over that initial hesitation, there are other doubts creeping in. Would you be accepted there? Do you have to sacrifice the religious principles you held dear in order to blend in, experience the place and not to stick out too much? Would anyone come to your rescue if you need help? [caption id="attachment_18490" align="alignnone" width="900"]
#travellingwhileMuslims these days couldn’t be more daunting, isn’t it?[/caption] I’m sorry for painting such a bleak picture, but to be honest, sometimes I do feel like creeping under the blanket and hibernating until the whole world is “right” again. Maybe I should just retire my walking shoes and shove my backpack into the deepest corner of my wardrobe, to be taken out only when it can be guaranteed that Muslim travelers would feel safe and welcomed everywhere in the world. [caption id="attachment_18491" align="alignnone" width="900"]
 To travel or not to travel, that is the question…[/caption] But to do so is selfish, not to mention wasteful. What if I die before that actually happen? Besides, we were born in this place and particularly, time, for a purpose. And that reason is absolutely not to hide inside our cocoon and just let things be. So, instead of succumbing to situations, we shouldn’t be shying away from what we do best – travel. Maybe it’s time to do more of it. But first, yes, we have to get over that fear. The fear that (literally) wouldn’t get us anywhere. [caption id="attachment_18492" align="alignnone" width="900"] 
Colorado, the beautiful state with equally beautiful promises[/caption] I had my first taste of that fear when I experienced an Islamophobia-related hostility in 2005 in Colorado, USA where I did my bachelor degree. It was my first overseas trip, and I was, understandably, excited. Everyone I met had been nothing but tremendously helpful so it didn’t cross my mind that not all would share the same warm sentiment towards a Muslim foreigner such as myself.
But then one day it happened. I was walking along the 16th Street in downtown Denver when suddenly I faintly heard someone muttered “terrorist.” It happened in a split second, and I was too shocked to react in any way. I did get a glimpse of the person though – he was Caucasian and looked to be in his 60’s. I continued walking, as if in a daze, and only after a few steps away did it sink that I had just been harassed due to my religion, which was proudly displayed by my hijab. The incident haunted me for weeks. I kept on asking myself if I had committed any grave actions that would prompt such a harsh word from a complete stranger. I couldn’t find any. Anything apparent, anyway. I started to feel angry – angry at the person who harassed me without knowing better, and angry at Muslims who behaved selfishly without considering the effects of their actions on others. Then I felt afraid – what were the chances that I wouldn’t be abused again? [caption id="attachment_18501" align="alignnone" width="1200"] 
 Leslie (left) and Alyda (right) were two first persons who welcomed me in Colorado. They have become dear friends since, and are essential in forming my first impressions of Americans and the country.[/caption] As a student, to feel sorry for myself and hide was not an option. Having had to show up for classes every day and be a part of the local community I was living in, I was able to suppress the incident as I met other Americans who saw me beyond my hijab. I was invited to Thanksgiving dinners and social gatherings, where there were always Muslim-friendly dishes and I was exempted from some of the more religious rituals that I was uncomfortable with. [caption id="attachment_18496" align="alignnone" width="900"] 
 Manning the ticket both at the 2008 International Day, an event attended by not only the students and staff on campus but also local residents who were interested in diversity.[/caption] To generalize is easy, but doing so would only put me into the same boat as the person who generalized me as a terrorist. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who, in their well-intended gestures, shielded me from permanently forming such a perception. So now, whenever I’m hesitating about a country and its people, I try not to fall into this trap. Instead, I would consider the hospitality and generosity of the majority that I would have missed just because of the actions of a few. Well, that is sure easier said than done. To tell you the truth, even after many good experiences, I still had my reservations. The incident in Denver would sometime resurface, raising doubts of being truly accepted in a foreign land. Still, during my junior year of college, I decided to give the application for a resident assistant (RA) post in the university’s residence halls a try. I had zero expectations, as I didn’t expect a Muslim would be hired for the job. The university was pushing for diversity, so I thought they were just being politically correct. Without realizing it, I was generalizing! [caption id="attachment_18497" align="alignnone" width="900"] 
 With the rest of my university’s Residence Life delegation to RAppin’ 2008, a conference for resident assistants in Grand Junction, Colorado.[/caption] Surprisingly, I passed the first interview session and was called for the next one. During the last segment of that final interview, I was posed with questions that required diplomatic skills, as they involved religious beliefs and dealing with many affected parties (students, parents, administration and the authority). I was at a tricky juncture: at this point I had to reevaluate my priority – a job and the promise of being accepted, or my principles. I decided to not compromise my faith, and I was quite firm on that. It turned out that my fear was mostly groundless. I found Americans to be appreciative of individuality, and my appearance and stance, which I thought were disadvantages, actually worked in my favour. I learned that in order to belong, I did not have to sacrifice what I held dear; instead, they were my pillars of strength. My hijab was respected, and so were my dietary restrictions. I was always included in group outings, impromptu dinner plans, weekend football games and random video gaming sessions, even if I couldn’t tell Counter Strike apart from Halo. So in a way, by being true to myself, instead of being constricted, I felt more at ease and accepted. [caption id="attachment_18498" align="alignnone" width="900"] 
 They got bored one Saturday so they decided an educational trip to the Natural Science Museum was in order. I couldn’t remember how I got round up into it, but was glad to be included, nevertheless.[/caption] Since then, I have given up trying to act other than myself when I’m in a foreign land. The world is, in reality, more tolerant that what the media has painted it to be, and always includes us Muslims. Sometimes, it might have been us who put the restrictions on ourselves, through innocent, well intended acts that accumulated and turned into – yes – fear that prevents us from venturing out of our comfort zones. It’s easy isn’t it, to momentarily forget that Islam is not a religion that burdens its believers? [caption id="attachment_18499" align="alignnone" width="900"] 
I was a part of Residence Life 2008/09 Co-Educational Flag Football Team and we were intramural champions that semester! (I still have that shirt in a box somewhere…)[/caption] I know that my personal experiences are limited, isolated and might be insignificant. But I do hope, however small, they would help ease your worries when it comes to traveling. Allah has blessed us with such a wonderful world to tread upon and learn from, so go explore! [caption id="attachment_18500" align="alignnone" width="900"]
Oh, the paths I’ll go![/caption] Sincerely, Your Fellow Muslim Traveler