Editor’s Note: Many of us are rightly concerned about the dangers of radical Islam. The Church constantly reminds us, though, to be open to the possibility of dialogue wherever it exists. One of our favorite columnists at Catholic Exchange, Harold G. Koenig, MD, finds himself in dialogue with Islam on a medical assignment in Saudi Arabia.
Two weeks ago, I boarded Saudi Arabian Airlines in Washington DC headed for Jeddah located on the Red Sea. In August of last year, I learned that I was one of 100 scientists worldwide chosen to serve on the faculty as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at King Abdulaziz University, one of the top three universities in Saudi Arabia with nearly 2,000 medical students. This position requires that I spend three weeks per year in Jeddah doing research with faculty and teaching medical and nursing students at the university. This is my first time traveling here (and my first time in a Muslim country).
When I got to my departure gate in Washington, I realized I was about to enter into a new world. Many people, including the flight attendants, were dressed in clothing I had never seen before — the women with black dresses covering everything except their hands, wrists and faces, and the men with long white gowns and head coverings. At this time, my impression of the Middle East and Islam was like that of many Westerners, and it was not a positive one. This impression was largely based on discussion within evangelical Christian groups that tended to demonize Muslims and from the popular media that characterized the Middle East as a place of roadside bombs that killed American soldiers, the birthplace of terrorists who bomb ships and fly airplanes into the World Trade Center (indeed, Osama Bin Laden graduated from the university where I was headed), rioting people participating in the Arab Spring, endless fighting and suicide bombing, kidnappings and beheadings, and most of all, hatred for Americans (and Christians in particular) viewed as invaders, burners of the Qur’an, and backers of Israel. Therefore, it was with considerable trepidation that I sat down in my first class seat (at least I was flying in style) that would transport me to within an hour’s drive of what for Muslims is the holiest place in the world, Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and Islam.
I became even more nervous when a man dressed in traditional Arab garb boarded the plane and sat next to me, and began chanting quietly (but definitely out loud) bending over and holding a small book in his hand. When the pilot signaled that the plane was ready to take off, I capitalized on a brief break in the man’s chanting to introduce myself and ask him about what he was doing. He told me that he was Muslim and that he was reciting from the Qur’an. He also happened to be a physician (cardiologist) who was headed back home to Jeddah where he worked in a local hospital. As our conversation progressed, he seemed eager to tell me about his religious faith, and I was a receptive and eager listener — desperate to make friends with someone in this new and strange place where I was headed. He was actually a delightful person, polite and friendly and full of information about Islam. It was very clear that he was serious about his religion, and I wanted to learn everything I could about that.
When we got to Jeddah, I got off the plane and self-propelled my wheelchair into the airport terminal and what seemed to be a different planet. Men and women were dressed like the flight attendants on the plane. I had only seen in the movies (Laurance of Arabia, Arabian Nights, etc.). Had I made a mistake in coming here? I began to definitely think so when I learned that the airline had lost my luggage. They were apologetic, but were clear that it would be some time before they could track down my bags. Until then, I realized that I would have to wear what I had slept in during the 14-hour flight on the plane. I was surprised, though, by how helpful people seemed to be, offering to push me to different places in the airport as needed, even pushing me ahead of others in line at the money exchange booth, and then out to the curb to catch a cab. This helpfulness continued at the motel when I arrived, where staff seemed eager to assist (although being a 5-star hotel probably also had something to do with it).