Three months ago I was riding my bicycle fifty kilometers inside of Muslim Turkey when a construction crew waved me over to share a meal with them. It was a wonderful, awkward and, at times, humorous time of shared communion. Only one man had a handful of English words to his vocabulary and I had no Turkish words to rely on. Our communication came almost completely in the form of hand motions and subtle messages with our eyes.
It was only later that I discovered what I had been invited into. The Feast of Sacrifice (Eid ul Adha) had just concluded the day before and Muslims were still carrying out the ritual forms of their religious observance. During the feast a lamb or a goat is slaughtered. Strict observance requires that no meat goes to waste and that it is shared with others: one-third is eaten by the family; one-third is shared with friends; one-third is given to the stranger or the poor.
Turkish citizens told me later that I had been invited to share in this meal as part of their religious practice. I was the poor stranger living out of four bags on my bike who rode into their lives just as they were contemplating how to share their feast. It was, at times, an awkward meal as I didn’t want meat in my stomach while riding and they were kindly adamant that to leave an unfinished meal as their guest would have violated the unspoken contract that I had signed by accepting their offer to share a meal. As I prepared to leave the one man who had made the initial invitation embraced me with both arms, planting two warm Turkish kisses on me, one for each cheek. The other men smiled and quietly cheered.
It is only now that I am realizing how important and remarkable our shared meal was. With the terrible disturbing events in Paris this week, I am aware that the spirit of fear, mistrust, and anger is in the air. The Muslim population is 1.6 billion and represents about 23% of the world’s people. Yet, radical Islamic fundamentalists dominate the media and the stories about Islam. I think most of us work hard not to paint the totality of Islam with the same brush stroke that we do the terrorist organizations of ISIS and al-Queda. But, without actual evidence it is natural for people to wonder just a bit.
Before I left on my pilgrimage I was warned by a handful of Turkish citizens and American acquaintances not to take the risk of cycling through Turkey just as things were heating up. ISIS was looking for opportunities to kidnap western hostages (primarily Americans and Brits) to fund their jihadist activities. I decided that I would not cancel my trip, but that I would rely on my experiences and reception from people on the ground. I didn’t want the media-induced fear to determine my decision; I wanted to make my decision based on my actual experience of the people.
I can’t speak for all of Turkey. I can’t speak for all of Islam. I am not an expert on terrorism. But, I can tell you what I experienced. From the day I entered Turkey I was invited to drink tea with Turkish citizens—some practicing Muslims, some more secularized. I was invited by a farmer to sit on a log while he split a watermelon in half, gave me a knife, and instructed me to eat as much of it as I wanted. I shared in the feast of a sacrificed goat for the Feast of Eid ul Adha, a major Muslim holy day. And, I was embraced and kissed by a Muslim brother as a blessing for my journey.
This is the Islam that I experienced. These were the Muslims with whom I shared my days. I know that ISIS also lays claim to the name of Islam and pledges allegiance to Allah. But, I don’t recognize their god. And I don’t think my new friends do either.