We live in a time I never thought I would live to see, where, in the United States of America, a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, we are actually having a national conversation, in public, about the efficacy of banning an entire strata of humanity from our shores on the basis of their faith.
So let this episode in Senegal, an African nation which is over 90% Muslim, serve as both rebuke and example.
It is a country that proudly elected as their first president after independence, a Christian – because they felt, in their best judgment, that regardless of his faith, he was the best person for the job.
It is a country that defies stereotypes and expectations at every turn.
Emerging from French colonial times as a functioning multicultural, multilingual, extraordinarily TOLERANT society.
It has managed to avoid coups, tribal wars, dictatorships and most of the ills that afflicted so many of its neighbors and remains an absolutely enchanting place to visit, with delicious food, absolutely extraordinarily beautiful music, and a relatively free and easy attitude towards intermarriage, mixed race and inter-tribal relationships, and foreign visitors.
It has a powerful and proud tradition of hospitality that endures to this day.
So, in addition to showing you a slice of the beauty of the country and its people, we ask the question, or at least leave it hanging: What do these people think – who have always looked admiringly at America and its democratic institutions – of the kind of hateful, fearful, small minded ranting that actually passes for a platform these days?
That they are predominantly Sufi Muslims, with attitudes towards behavior far removed from the more loony toon, extreme brand of Islam we see too all often on the news, is a distinction unlikely to be made by haters, most of whom have difficulty (or simply don’t care) to even distinguish Muslims from Sikhs.
One can drink a beer nearly anywhere in Senegal. One can choose to wear the traditional hijab – or not. (Most women from what I saw, do not. The elaborate hair weave seems more the thing).
Senegal is one of the best arguments for travel I can think of.
Because the more we see of the world – actually meet who we are talking about or think we are talking about – then the better we shall be.
We should take a walk, however briefly, in other people’s shoes. We should see how other people live, people who are supposedly so different than us. When we do, we find ourselves – as so often and so inevitably happens – as recipients of random acts of hospitality and kindness from total strangers.
Knowledge and exposure to the “other” is not a contaminant. It enriches us. It makes – or should make us – more humble.
Senegal. It’s someplace that everyone, given the chance, should go.
Rare color images from 1899 offer glimpse into a lost North Africa
This article was originally published in May 2016.