This summer I traveled through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, a part of the world that most Americans rarely see in the news or visit in person.
The distance provided me with a new perspective from which to look upon my country, helping me realize that, despite a overextended sense of importance and myopic foreign policy, there are many American attributes to be proud of: our thirst for innovation and improvement, our philosophical comfort with being American, economic freedom and upward mobility, a land of vast and natural beauty, a robust judiciary and a Constitution that remains relevant more than 200 years after it was written.
Of course, defining a country s characteristics as either good or bad is simplistic; there are very legitimate counterarguments to every item in the above list. Innovation does not benefit everyone, nor can everyone fully enjoy dual identities or work freely. And most glaringly, our Constitution remains under attack from post-9/11 fear mongering.
But more than any physical feature – economic and military might, for example – America s real power stems from being a symbol of possibility for people around the world. Amazingly, as I discovered through my travels, not even the immoral misadventure in Iraq can destroy this intangible source of strength.
My time in Alor Star highlighted this point. Alor Star is a city in northern Malaysia that doesn t give visitors much of a reason to stay. It s a comfortably conservative place, with most men and women wearing traditional Muslim attire, many shops selling Islamic goods and nearly all the restaurants serving halal meat (permissible according to Islamic law). Five times a day, the call to prayer would echo throughout the city.
Here, like anywhere else, I made no effort to hide my American citizenship – if people asked, I told them. Eyes lit up when I said I was from New York (the closest identifiable place to my hometown in Connecticut), and not once did I feel uncomfortable or unwanted. Quite the opposite, in fact. The first question women my age would ask was, Do you have a girlfriend?
Even when visiting the Masjid Zahir, Alor Star s beautiful central mosque, during Friday afternoon prayers, the worshipping men either left me alone or bid me a safe journey. Those I met were more eager to share their culture than to scorn mine.
This wasn t surprising. I have never had a problem traveling internationally as an American or, for that matter, as a Jew. The fears many in the mainstream media strike into us are grossly exaggerated. Unfortunately, with only 27 percent of Americans holding passports, according to a 2006 New York Times article, most citizens of the sole superpower understand the world only through that narrow lens.
The trouble with not traveling is not just that we fail to understand others, but we also fail to understand ourselves. The American psyche, embodied by the president, disdains weakness – it could damage our self-perpetuating myth that we can do anything. But in denying our limitations, we miss some of our strengths, too.
It was also in Malaysia, this time in a small village in a 130 million-year-old rain forest, that I realized that of all the Western powers, America is most capable of bridging the us versus them divide. This may seem incongruous with a reality in which America, through both rhetoric and action, has widened that gap.
But in this village, I stayed at a guesthouse with three Europeans. The accommodation was next door to a mosque, so the 5 a.m. call to prayer carried easily through the humid air.
My fellow guests didn t get it. They weren t angry or disrespectful, they just could not understand why anyone would wake up to pray before dawn (or ever, for that matter). I came across the same sentiment many times when I traveled through Europe two years ago.
For sure, Islam remains foreign and frightening to many Americans. But, as a country, we understand what it means for faith to play a central role in our lives. And in this regard, our so-called secular society is not all that different from the so-called religious-centric societies of the Muslim world.
We should take advantage of this invaluable American trait. Instead of trying to circumvent and quarantine religion – whether Judeo-Christian values or Islam – we should use religion as a means to understand each other.
Sadly, talking about Muhammad risks the speaker being labeled an anti-modern, anti-democratic extremist, just as someone talking about Jesus risks being seen as pandering to right-wing interests. The moderate majority instead tends to use religion as a catalyst for personal growth and guidance, rather than to promote political interests.
Religion should neither be ignored nor treated as a competitive contact sport. We cannot keep quiet about something that is so important to so many people around the world. Political and religious leaders need to embrace interfaith dialogue that strengthens similarities and respects differences, while discouraging the idea that anyone has a monopoly over God – the goal of many who boast about their religious fervor.
Traveling outside of the US made it clear to me that though specifics differ among religions, devotion to family, tradition and belief in a supreme being is largely universal. America is serious about God and so is the Muslim world, and that should be our starting point.
Bill Glucroftis a senior journalism student at Emerson College in Boston. He maintains a web site of his work at www.allbillnobull.net. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.