If there is one thing that I’ve learned about traveling, it’s that no country will ever align with your expectations. Sometimes it will exceed them, seldom will it fall short of them, but most often the reality of a new culture will divert entirely from the image in your mind, like a fork in the road, or a massive U-turn sign.
Morocco is no exception to this rule. The nuances of Moroccan culture are richer and more layered than I ever could have imagined. This is especially true when it comes to the relationship between religion and virtually every daily activity that I’ve witnessed thus far—whether it be work, school, or even a simple greeting to a neighbor on the street.
The ubiquity of Islam did not come as a surprise to me—it was at least one thing that I fully expected to experience while living in Morocco. Most women in the streets don the Muslim hijab or the more conservative niqab. References to Islam and the Qur’an permeate daily Moroccan-Arabic sayings, and the call to prayer blends into the background street noise of the medina.
What has surprised me during my time here, however, has been the pervading sense of defensiveness from my Moroccan professors when it comes Moroccan culture, particularly Islam. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction, as if the second that a group of American students walks into the classroom, the only thing that we could possibly be thinking about Middle Eastern and North African culture is ISIS, or how Islam oppresses women.
My gender studies professor, for example, focuses her lectures on the socioeconomic and historical factors that have contributed to subordinate the status of women in Middle East and North Africa region. Her argument is that although the existence of sexism in the region is indisputable, the role of Islam in this oppression is not. An especially salient point of frustration for her is the passage in the Qur’an which, she claims, has been misinterpreted and manipulated to require Muslim women to cover their heads with the veil. She implores the group of American college students in the room to realize that nowhere in the Qur’an is the word “veil” ever even mentioned, never mind mandated.
My Islam in Morocco class was similar—within the first half an hour of class my professor had already mentioned both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, stressing how inimical their core tenants are to the values of selflessness and peace on which Islam was founded. The rest of the class was spent with him describing how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all came from the same book and are therefore intrinsically related—an effort to convince us of Islam’s inherent compatibility with more Western religions.
My professors’ defensiveness was not aggressive, nor was it based an unfounded assumption—their reaction was to American stereotypes and policies which unfortunately represent American students by virtue of our nationality. It did, however, make me reflect on how exactly we got to this point. How did Western disdain for and fear of Islam become so strong, so pervasive in everyday life, that my adult professors halfway across the globe feel the need to defend their religion to a group of 20-year-old Americans? Here I am in Morocco, voluntarily taking a course from a Muslim professor who has no obligation to prove anything to me, and yet he stands at the front of the class apologizing for his extremist counterparts.
Have we forgotten about Christian extremism, and all of the wars that have been waged in the name of Christianity? History books don’t exactly paint any religion as peaceful, but Christianity has had more than its fair share of violence and is still responsible for events that happen today.
It would be like a theology class at Georgetown starting with the professor ranting about how the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t accurately represent all Christians or the teachings of the Bible. The difference is that as Christians, we don’t feel obliged to apologize just because there are small groups of extremists that interpret the Bible in hateful ways that are antithetical to its intended message.
The reaction of my professors made me more convinced than ever that the Western world needs to start re-examining their anti-Muslim rhetoric, and relieve the burden of responsibility that has been placed upon the millions of peaceful Muslims that exist all around the globe.