A couple of years ago, my sister and I were part of a “Islamic Heritage” tour in Spain with about 40 people. Haroon Moghul was our illustrious tour guide, painting the history of a particular place as we made our way through Andalucia. His lectures throughout the journey enhanced the trip and for me, instilled the need to travel to more places like Spain that held a place in Islamic history. It was because of that trip that I had purposefully made Istanbul my next travel destination.
Even though the Spain trip was more than two years ago, that trip and my subsequent trip to Istanbul have had a profound impact on me and I thought it would be nice to do a follow up post to my original blog post on Islamic Spain and talk to Haroon about his traveling experiences and why we as Americans and Muslims should even travel in the first place.
Although his day job doesn’t revolve around being a tour guide, Haroon is the perfect person to talk to about this topic as he gets called upon to speak about Islamic thought and history around the country. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, and Dawn. Haroon is a PhD candidate at Colombia University and a Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
Can you tell me about your background? What got you interested in traveling in the first place?
When I was growing up, we used to go to Pakistan pretty much every winter and we used to fly through JFK in New York, which was the closest major airport – it was about 2 hours from us. JFK has no single, dominant airline. If you go to London or Istanbul or Dubai there’s always the official airline like British Airways, Turkish, or Emirates and so you tend to see that one airline. For whatever reason, I became weirdly obsessed with airline liveries, the tails of planes, and because so many airlines flew to JFK, I remember as a very little kid I used to stare out the windows and be fascinated by planes and all the different airlines and I used to fantasize about what it would be like to fly those different airlines. I thought as I grew older that that was a little bit like what it was like being a brown kid in a white town in that you have all these planes that are all the same but they are all going to different places and have their own languages and cultures so it was a really weird kind of exposure to the rest of the world without ever going to the world and then I thought to myself I want to actually go to where those airlines come from.
Where did your interest in Islamic history come from?
The interest in Islamic history came from my parents probably most of all. I come from a pretty religious, conservative family so Muslim identity was a big deal and it was something that I was trying to figure out for myself. Studying Islam and Islamic history and fascination with the Muslim world, it all developed naturally and it was all part of a way to figure out my own relationship to the world around me.
What was the first country you traveled to in order to learn about their Islamic historical background?
When I was 12, my parents went to a medical conference in Turkey, the Islamic Medical Association of America and that was their first international conference. My parents are both doctors so they took us along the trip and most of the time while they were at sessions or panels or whatever you do at a medical conference, they had tours and programs for the kids, age appropriate. That was the first time I had been to a Muslim country other than Pakistan and it really affected me powerfully because when I saw the history and difference of culture and the fact that it was somehow recognizably Muslim but not Western but different from America, it created a fascination with Turkey that has actually I think continued to this day.
I think that the next experience that was very profound for me was Saudi Arabia. I went when I was 18 to do Umrah. My brother was working there. And that was really traumatic because I think I imagined Saudi Arabia as some sort of an idealized MSA [Muslim Student Association] conference in Mecca. It sounds really funny and it’s laughable now but at the time I had this naive belief that you would be welcome and that it was this wonderful place full of Muslims and it’s just a country with all of its ups and downs. That was the first time I had traveled to a Muslim country as an adult. That I think provoked me to want to do more of that, to see what else is out there.
What countries have you visited in that capacity, to learn about Islamic history or to even just take people on tours?
For tours, it’s only been three countries: Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. I also co-led a tour of Mecca and Medina as part of an Umrah trip. I’ve done, incidentally, programs in Jerusalem when I was on the ground in Jerusalem, taking people around, showing them a little bit of the history.
For my own exploration, Egypt and Pakistan. I tried to go to India but I couldn’t get a visa – I don’t know why that was. Other places I would’ve loved to go that you just can’t go to: it’s reasonably hard to go to Uzbekistan, Iran is off the table for me because I work in national security so it’s not going to happen, and Syria and Iraq are no longer really countries one can travel to unfortunately. But I think most of all I would’ve liked to go to Iran and see Iran but I don’t see that happening in the future.
Do you think there’s any place that Muslims should really make an effort to visit that is either overlooked or not overlooked but that they should really make an effort to go to?
I think there’s three types of places that we should encourage or facilitate people’s travels to. The first are places that are under covered and that’s a different challenge and may not be for the average tourist or traveler but perhaps for Muslim leaders or activists or journalists, places like Myanmar and what’s happening there, the situation of Muslims in Western China, to see that.
The second I think are places that I think it’s important for Muslims to travel to get a better handle on what’s happening to them as Americans. I encourage people to go to Palestine for example if they can because it’s one thing to hear about it on the news and it’s another thing to go yourself. That’s a place where I think Americans in general should go, not just Muslims.
And finally, one of the reasons I chose Bosnia, is because it’s a way to build solidarity of meeting a people that have been through a massive trauma and developing and emotional and perhaps even a financial link to a place like that and then depending on that link, to in turn help affect how we view our place in American politics. Where does Eastern Europe figure in American national security policy, foreign policy, so on and so forth? I think that obligations we have as Muslims, if we have the resources, include visiting people who have been through traumas and drawing attention to that and also to the simple fact of going there and saying we know you’re here and we know what you went through and you’re not alone.
Do you find that a lot of people don’t really have Bosnia on their list of places to go to be a tourist and to learn about Islamic history?
It’s unfortunate because it’s an amazing country. It’s incredibly unique, it’s pristine, it’s beautiful, the people are astoundingly friendly, the landscape is stunning. The culture, the history, is something you cannot find anywhere else and the fact that it’s in the middle of Europe – it’s about an hour from Rome, about two hours from Istanbul, maybe about two hours from London – and yet nobody even goes there, is sad but I think that’s changing. I think if you have a place like that, more and more people start to pay attention to it considering what Bosnians went through and the fact that they are Western and they are Muslim and that United States has a very significant role to play in the region and will continue to support it.
I think a lot of time we frame America’s relationship with the Muslim world as always antagonistic and yet if you look at Eastern Europe, if you look at what’s happening in Ukraine and Chechnya, these are places where America has been generally sympathetic to Muslim populations and so it’s important to us as Muslims but it’s also important to us as Americans. I think what happens in Europe means a lot to Americans because we’re Westerners so to see those places in that sense takes on incredible layers of significance that you can’t fully communicate, you just have to experience. If you take a young Muslim that hasn’t seen much of the Muslim world or perhaps has never been to the Muslim world, it has a profound impact.
In Bosnia, one of the guys in our group was of Russian origin, convert to Islam, and his first trip to a Muslim country was to Bosnia and it was such an interesting thing to see because he’s Slavic, and yet his identity as Muslim, which has perhaps been constructed as, if not at odds with, then entirely incidental to being Slavic. What’s the connection between Russia and Islam in his life experience? Perhaps it wasn’t a strong one. And yet to go to a place where he could almost understand the language and speak the language and yet it was Muslim? It was such a nice to thing see because it was like he had a homecoming to a home he never even knew he had.
While traveling, what has been your favorite moment? Is there one place you like to share with other people or one place had a personal moment in?
I’ve always thought Istanbul to be a refuge. Whenever I go there, it invigorates me, recharges me, inspires me. It’s a nice place to be able to go to repeatedly. What I love about it is no matter how many times I go, I feel like I only scratched the surface. Ironically, I’ve never been outside of Istanbul. I’ve been to Istanbul I don’t even know how many times at this point but I never leave, which may be a good thing or a bad thing. I would love to see the rest of Turkey but it hasn’t happened yet.
I think the main takeaway for me and traveling is that it helps you understand yourself a little bit better, especially the first time you go to a place or when you are a little bit younger, and what it feels when you realize how American you are. That sounds incredibly stupid, saying it now at the age of 34 but when I first went to Saudi Arabia, I was amazed at how American I was. When I lived in Cairo for a few months to study Arabic, I was dismayed, disheartened, and simply surprised by how little time I spent in “Muslim” Cairo so to speak and the traditional parts of Cairo, as loaded as the word is, and how much more time I spent in the cafes in the Western neighborhoods until it occurred to me that this was what was familiar to me, this is home.
In Islamic Spain, what do you like to share with people? Any particular place or story?
It’s always very rewarding if you are a teacher or an educator to see a person’s ideas about the world change and to be there when that light bulb goes off or when that connection is made or when that inference is understood or processed and to know that it’s part of a process. So, you go and you see something and it affects you and then you assimilate it to your experience and you see something else and you assimilate it to that and over the course of a whole week, you see how people’s perspective on things change.
There are obviously a lot of things I love about Spain but to me it’s the whole experience, from start to finish, and to get people to not simply walk away and say “Hey, there’s this great place and everything was perfect and then the Muslims died,” but rather to say that there was this amazing civilization, it had its ups and downs, it had its unique characteristics, and then its time came to an end. You can take away from that something negative and pessimistic and depressing and disheartening or you take away from it something incredibly inspiring, that for about a thousand years you had this civilization with all its permutations, evolutions, changes and characteristics, that went through so many different personalities and it ended, but everything ends. And instead, to say that you should inspire to believe that it’s part of a bigger story.
I don’t believe in a simplistic rise and fall narrative, the golden age narrative, because I think it’s incredibly intellectually dishonest and it’s personally, existentially self-defeating. For example someone says “Is the Muslim world in decline right now?” I could find reasons to say “yes” and I can find reasons to say “no” and what I want is for someone’s experience in a place like Spain to help them understand what I mean when I say that.
To say “Here’s the Alhambra, isn’t this amazing, how gorgeous is that,” but at the same time time, it was a palace for [the] rich who were not the people and arguably did not do much for people in the long term and to look at the Mosque in Cordoba and say “Oh here was a mosque and now it’s not a mosque and doesn’t that stink?” or to say “Here’s a mosque that was so profound and so influential that it’s still something that moves people,” even if they have no appreciation for that tradition and may even be hostile to that tradition.
To me, that is probably the greatest lesson of Islamic history and the strength of Islamic culture. If you think for example Spain, or India, or Israel, three countries that had substantial Muslim populations who have perhaps gone into decline, let’s say, still those places are identified by Islamic architecture. When you think of Dome of the Rock, you think of Israel and vice versa. No other building brings Israel to mind. When you see Israel, whenever it’s displayed on the news, it’s always the Dome of the Rock. When it’s India, it’s almost always the Taj Mahal, and when it’s Spain, it’s the Alhambra. And to me it’s fascinating that despite the identities of those states and how hostile they have been at times towards Muslims, they can’t escape the fact that the most beautiful expression of human flourishing or aspiration is a Muslim one. That’s what I want them to take away from it.
Do you believe that American Muslims should travel and how would you convince them, if you think they should?
First, obviously, it’s a socioeconomic question but there are a number of Muslims who are doing well for themselves enough to travel. Me, personally, I think if God has blessed you in certain ways then it’s a little bit unbecoming to not enjoy some of things He’s given you. But also because travel is a productive activity. I think there’s this notion of charity that is actually antithetical to the Islamic tradition. We are a religion of merchants. Even in our religion we sort of believe that if you do certain things for God’s sake, God rewards you many times over so piety is productive. It’s not a linear equation, it’s an exponential equation. So that’s what I say to people with a place like Bosnia, is that there’s different ways of framing sadaqa [charity]. Sadaqa can be: I’m giving someone 10 dollars because he has nothing to eat or I’m taking 500 people and booking hotels and spending money and giving a boost to an economy and encouraging other people to go because they see pictures on Facebook or they hear by word of mouth or they read this interview and they say “Why didn’t I think of going to Bosnia?” To me, that is a form of solidarity that is far more effective.
When people for example talk about boycotting things, like “We should boycott XYZ because they support Israel” my problem with that approach is that until you give people something better, it never works. It’s fine to boycott, I have no issue with that, but you know, people say “I don’t want to support …Starbucks,” even though Starbucks has issued a statement saying they don’t support Israel. But let’s say they don’t [want to support it]. Where’s your Starbucks? How have we gone from being the people that built the Mosque of Cordoba, which has endured for over a thousand years, to being unable to build institutions, or anything that is recognizable and desirable. That’s a massive collapse in aspirational spirit. And you talk about Spain, they came in, built an empire, endured for hundreds of years. Do we build anything that endures?
To me, travel is also a way of spreading prosperity. I remember reading an article in Turkey about how some politician was complaining that the tourist industry in the Mediterranean coast was just sucking up all these Turkish teenagers, like summer jobs, lifeguard or whatever and then another politician responded, and I love this response, and said hey, if it wasn’t for this they would have to go abroad to find jobs. So in the short term this is boosting our economy and in the long term, it would lead to a more sophisticated economy in the same way China went from DVDs to high speed rail.
So rather a model of charity in the Muslim community that is crude and just the transference of five dollars to someone else, your five dollars becomes ten dollars. Beyond the enjoyment of travel, I also tell people to frame it as that you are actually doing something good for the rest of the world.
Thank you to Haroon Moghul for talking to me about traveling! I kind of want to just hop on a plane right now and go somewhere awesome.
Haroon is also the author of the books My First Police State and Order of the Light and you can follow him on Twitter – @hsmoghul