So, an interesting thing happened to me a few nights ago. I was invited to a panel discussion about the perception of Islam in non-Arab countries. The American teachers in the secondary school were invited to take part because...we're the only non-Arabs on staff. Since it seemed like something that would be a great experience for cross-cultural learning, those of us that were invited decided we would all go. They had also invited a couple of people from the Islamic Center in Dammam that were Filipino, I assume to try and get more than just the American view of Islam...you know, stress the non-Arab part of the function. It was going to be a very interesting night and I was actually pretty excited about the experience.
And it started off promisingly enough...a couple of teachers introduced the evening and welcomed everybody in, and then the mic was handed to one of the students. He addressed his first question to the Filipinos: "So how did you find out about Islam?" This is when we find out that the Filipino gentlemen were mostly new converts...from Christianity. One of them was a former priest and he proceeded to explain how he realized that Christianity wasn't for him.
During the former priest's testimony (that really is the only way to describe it) I started to feel resentful. I resented the fact that I was basically tricked into an evangelistic pitch meeting. I resented that there was no mention of the perception of Islam in other countries, just the ways that Christianity is wrong. Don't get me wrong, they were all very friendly. They even offered to answer any questions we might have about Islam. They were talking to the room, of course...but looking straight at me.
I was put out. Annoyed. I considered walking out a couple of times. Not because I didn't like what they had to say, but because I felt like I had been lured there under false pretenses. I began to feel more and more defensive as the other speakers went on.
The father of one of my students came up to me after the "discussion" and gave me a pen with information about Islam on it. He called it a "magic pen"... you might say he was the Islamic equivalent of a Gideon. The pen had a scroll inside with websites with information about Islam.
Needless to say, I was upset by the time I got home. But I've thought a lot about it and I've come to a few conclusions.
First of all, this is literally the reason we came to Saudi Arabia. Not to convert to Islam, obviously, but to find out about other people's perspectives; to finally be in a minority and see what it feels like. I certainly was put in a position I'd really never been in before. So I can complain about it, or I can learn from it...and that is why we're here.
Second, this is no different than what would happen to anyone who's not a Christian back at home. Whether it's at work, school, or even in sports Christians take every opportunity they can to share their faith. From holiday programming to prayers before football games, Christianity is everywhere. Now that I've been on the other side of tracts, I can see how uncomfortable and even intrusive it can be. I'd never really thought about it until it was happening to me. Non-Christians are inundated with Christianity everyday in America, but in Saudi Arabia, the non-Muslims are inundated with Islam. I can actually sense your eyes rolling as I write this...but wait for the third point.
Third, and most importantly, I'm not at home. Saudi Arabia is a country that is ruled by sharia law and the king is the "custodian of the two holy mosques". You cannot separate Islam from Saudi. I don't think that expressing the religious views of the majority should be taboo. Just like Christians expressing their faith in America because they are in the majority. I live in an Islamic nation. I respect that.
In the end, I don't think that they set up the evening for the explicit purpose of converting the heathens. I think they really did want to talk about the issue of perception in non-Arab countries. I'm glad that I went. To hear the things that Muslims...especially Muslims that were once Christians...think about Christianity is fascinating. It's never a bad thing to get humbled every once in awhile. Ultimately, I'm not resentful about the experience...I actually think I learned from it.