One of the things I have observed after many months on the road is the question of how religion presents itself in different cultures. Everywhere you go, even in countries where one religion is widely accepted, people express their faiths, or lack thereof, in different ways. Religion is a huge factor in shaping culture, and that’s not necessarily positive nor negative. Historically, religion has been the root of many disputes, intolerances, persecutions, and even wars. But, in reality, religions really are not very different from each other, and religious intolerance is unnecessary.
Turkey is a Muslim country, but it's a place of many religions in history. In Selçuk, we visited the St John the Baptist Church, which overlooked a beautiful mosque, with the ancient Temple of Artemis ruins in the distance. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was a pagan temple, then a cathedral, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Just walking down the street you see people of all different religions, most obviously at first glance Muslims, but even then, there are varying differences of how they express their faith.
There were several times that we'd see young women clad in long, high-necked dresses and hijabs, kissing and snuggling their boyfriends in public. Tired-looking mothers strolled holding energetic toddlers who would tug at their headscarves. While visiting the Blue Mosque, we saw a father and his two young children, aged maybe five and two, praying. The older child copied his father’s motions, glancing up every now and then to make sure he was doing it right, while the younger child was all over the place, and only every once and a while did he assume the same positions as his father and brother.
Many people, mostly Westerners, may have misconceptions as to what Islam actually is. In this day and age, the subject of Islam is commonly coupled with the words “terrorism”, “ISIS”, “Al Qaeda”, and followed with biased misinformation. American news stations like Fox News partake in lots of fear-mongering regarding war in the Middle East and generally equate terrorism with Islam, when in reality, radical Islam really is not Islam. ISIS is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity. Muslims, like any other religious people, live their lives, they go to work, they get married and have children, or they don’t, they go to school, or they don’t, they play sports, or they don’t; the list goes on and on. Islam, like any religion, should and will be subject to educated criticism, however, the issue is that many non-Muslim people who speak ill of Islam and Muslims are incredibly misinformed and uneducated on the subject, and that is reflected in their criticisms.
Of course, religion is a huge factor when it comes to shaping culture. Religion affects almost every aspect of life for many people, and in turn, affects many aspects of life in a certain culture. When we had a nine-hour overnight layover in the Dubai International Airport, we observed that there were several signs pointing towards prayer rooms. During our stay in Turkey, we were awoken every morning before dawn by crackly loudspeakers from the several nearby mosques, announcing that it was time to pray. The call to prayer happened five times a day. In Brazil, as an example of a different religion, if a couple gets married in court and doesn’t get married through the church, they are still socially recognized as married, but “only legally”, since they didn’t marry under the eyes of God. One of Brazil’s core cultural values of “family first” in every sense of the phrase stems from Christian beliefs. Some Jewish families will have entirely separate sides of the kitchen, two different sets of dishware and silverware, because to stay Kosher, meat and dairy must remain completely separate. Human geographers will look at religion as being one of the things that shape a culture.
Throughout history, people have done disgusting things in the name of religion, in the name of faith, claiming that higher powers want them to do this. Look at the Crusades, look at the Spanish Inquisition, look at the Thirty Years’ War, look at the constant state of unrest around Jerusalem, a holy site for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Consequently, look at people of basically all religions fleeing persecution in hope of religious freedom. Look at the Holocaust. Look at the reason people followed Columbus to the New World. Basically, ask any war that’s ever been fought and there will probably be some root in religious conflict. Religious conflict exists not only in obvious wars, but can present itself in everyday life, anywhere you go.
Religious texts are constantly misinterpreted and people will pick and choose what they want to believe from a certain holy book and what they will ignore. For example, one of the modern issues that people are arguing about is LGBT+ rights. Many people will use religion to say that queer people should not be granted the same rights as cis/straight people, for example; marriage, career stability, protection against hate crimes, the right to express individuality, and many others. The same arguments of “my religion says that you can’t do that” was made when the US was up in arms about whether or not interracial marriages were okay.
What I’m getting at is that, at the core, most religions are incredibly similar, which is why religious intolerance is ridiculous. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all believe in the same, one, God. All three of those religions are sons of the prophet Abraham. All three of those religions believe in the holiness of the city Jerusalem (see: The Crusades). All three share the belief of prophets and divine revelation, all three share the belief of angels. Most importantly, all three religions believe in treating others with kindness and striving to be a good person.
That’s why religion exists; people need something to believe in, people need a sense of community, people need to belong. Religion is a way of making sense of the world around us. Many people’s beliefs are in religion, many people’s beliefs have nothing to do with religion, some people rely on science for explanation. Whatever the case is, the core value of morality for all religions is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you will have done unto you.
It does not matter what one’s personal beliefs may be, religious intolerance is not okay. History keeps repeating itself over and over again and humanity needs to start learning from our mistakes. It’s okay to have a religion, it’s okay to be at varying different levels of practicing that religion, it’s okay to be proud of one’s religion, it’s okay to not have a religion, and it’s okay to uphold one’s own religion’s dogmas and rituals. What’s not okay is policing other people’s beliefs, and what’s not okay is using one’s religion to preach hate. We as a human race need to stop this petty, religious-based intolerance, and we need to start now.