Original Chinese text: Jin Hui
Translation: Belle Guo Xiao
English editors: Cathy Ziengs and Raymond Lam
On the evening of July 24th, we began our extraordinary tour to Turkey from Hong Kong International Airport; it was really an honor for me to join this cultural trip.
This tour was expressly arranged for the Alumni Association of the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong by a Turkish NGO called Anatolia Cultural & Dialogue Centre (hereafter referred to as “the Centre”). Before our departure, I did not anticipate that the tour might be gratifying or fulfilling in any particular way.
I had thought beforehand that this cultural exchange trip was a merely a chance to visit Turkey, observe the local customs and daily life, and share some conversations. However, when we stepped out of Istanbul Airport, the staff and volunteers of the Centre had already been waiting a long time for us. Their warm smiles and hospitality, as well as the mindfully prepared schedule, made me feel right at home. This would also influence me positively during the trip; what I thought was a simple cultural exchange would progressively change into an educational, heartfelt dialogue.
Another aspect which moved me greatly was to witness the shared sense of dedication and responsibility among the staff and volunteers. During our stay, it was the month of Ramadan when Muslims cannot have any food or drink from sunrise to sunset every day. It was the hottest season in Turkey and temperatures sometimes rose up to 38。C. But no matter how extreme the heat, the Centre staff and volunteers who accompanied us patiently and carefully answered our questions without eating or drinking throughout the day. Their lack of physical energy did not diminish their enthusiasm and patience. Their faces betrayed no fatigue. I marvelled at their professionalism and passion.
The Centre explained that the original aim for this tour was to promote communication between different religions, and invite us to learn more about Turkish culture. However, I had the impression that its hidden intent was to have us learn about the culture of Islam. In Turkey, more than 98% of the population are Muslims. I felt that the Muslims we observed were strict adherents to the tenets of the Koran. Due to their pious behavior, and my understanding that their devotion to Allah is cultivated from a very young age, it seemed that their loyalty to Islam was absolute. Their faith was already deeply embedded in their hearts by the time they were adults.
During our visit in Turkey, in addition to seeing famous mosques and tourist attractions, we visited educational facilties, media agencies such as newspaper and TV stations, and the Journalists and Writers Foundation. We dined every evening with local host families and stayed one night as guests in a local household. I cherished the meetings because they did not force Islamic beliefs on us, nor did they try to convince us that Allah is supreme. They did not preach about their religion, nor did they impose their values on us during our exchanges with each other.
They asked us many questions about the differences between Islam and Buddhism in our discussions. They wanted to understand and learn about Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist way of life, the similarities and differences in schools, and the “rules” that Buddhists should obey. We opened our hearts to each other and sought to establish common ground while respecting differences. The whole dialogue was like a meeting of old friends, and we felt completely warm and comfortable.
Frankly, I knew extremely little about Islam and had never planned to actively seek any understanding of it before I joined this tour to Turkey. The only appeal to me was the unique geographic environment of Turkey: a country where Europe and Asia meet while bordering the North African coast facing the Mediterranean. It is a confluence of European, Asian and African cultures, resulting in a uniquely pluralistic culture. For a person who is so keen to travel, how could I resist the temptation of a visit to Turkey?
After seeing and hearing many things in Turkey, my opinions changed from my earlier preconceived ideas. Because of this, perhaps it is best to explain my feelings and observations. Originally, I had no interest in learning about Islam because of so many negative impressions that led to my distorted image of the religion. It seemed to me to be a religion of terrorism, thugs and barbaric behavior. However, I found my thinking to be an illusion after communicating with these kind and peaceful Turkish residents, who taught me that most Muslims are not advocates of war. Only a small radical group of extremists initiate terrorist attacks, but they do not represent the entirety of Islamic culture. Most Muslims are peaceful and they believe in treating people with love, foregiveness and tolerance – even towards your enemies. The way of vengeance is complete counterproductive, aggravating only hostility and generating endless wars. Only by love and foregiveness can we hope to achieve peace.
Moreover, another reason for my reluctance to embrace Islam is that women occupy low social positions. The tradition of overt patriarchy leaves me with the impression that Islam is out of touch with modern values. Nevertheless, I revised my views when I saw the status of women in Turkey. I found that Turkish women enjoy equal opportunities in education. After graduation they devote themselves to society. Besides family and work, they participate in community activites, promoting neighborhood support and community harmony. In many conservative countries in the Middle East, the women are always covered up. It is difficult for me to see women dressed from head to toe in black. But in Turkey, I saw no women dressed like that. Fashionable ladies were everywhere on the streets and some of them exposed themselves generously. From this, we can see that conservatism and dictatorship are only customs of specific cultures and countries, and not necessarily connected with religion.
After I returned to Hong Kong, I reflected on why I had been influenced for such a long time by the negative illusions concerning Islam. I finally realized that over a period of time I had developed a bias from the negative news media and subscribed (too easily) to the damaging sterotypes that are so prevalent.
In fact, in our daily life, frequent conflicts and confrontations result from mutual misunderstanding. If our mind could quietly settle down, clearly observing things as they really are, impartially analyzing causes of such misunderstandings, we could avoid many conflicts and arguments. We simply lack knowledge about each other in our daily lives and ignorance leads to false impressions. If we could learn more about each other with patience and open minds, incidences of misunderstanding would be reduced dramatically.
To create a harmonious world, the first step we need to take is to contact and come to know each other. Hopefully, we can then progress to mutual understanding, tolerance and respect. Finally, we need to seek common ground, tolerate differences, and strive for peaceful coexistence. To create a world without boundaries is difficult, but not impossible.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Centre for organizing this trip. It gave me an invaluable chance to learn more about Islam and eliminate my misunderstandings about it. Islam is the second largest religion in the world. If we change our negative perceptions of them to more positive ones, the whole world will surely enjoy much more friendship and communication. Moreover, the trip also provided an opportunity to propagate Buddhism in another place. Even though it was a trip about dialogue, I valued the occasion as a tourist. I brought a few pocket introductory books about Buddhism with me on the trip. At the end of the tour I gave them to our new Turkish friends and when I saw the joy on their faces, I felt confident that they might actually read them. At that moment, the joy in my heart was indescribable. And I sincerely hope that the seeds sown from this trip will take root and prosper when the causes and conditions are right.