My Trip to Syria
By Carol Schuller Milner
I entered Syria with one mindset, I left with quite another. I entered listing her sins and the sins of her people.
I left observing my own. - Carol Schuller Milner
I have just returned from the Middle East, at a time when peace is at the forefront of global interest concerning the nations of Israel and Syria. Simultaneous to the peace negotiation meetings in Washington, I was escorting my father, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, to Damascus, Syria. The invitation that had been extended to my father by Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, had been accepted months ago.
Now, peace talks between these two religious leaders of different faiths were unfolding at a most strategic and poignant time. We brought with us into Syria a predominant we-stern mindset that here was a nation bent on conflict, brewing war, and praying to Allah for their interests whatever the costs. Our only challenge to this mindset had been this friendly invitation from a leader over millions of Muslims who reside in Syria, Iran, Jordan, and Lebanon. He is as revered by his followers as the Pope is by Catholic devotees. His influence upon his nation and the global world of Islam is likewise comparable to Pope John Paul on the Christian world.
We were met at the Damascus airport by the Grand Mufti's son, Salah Kuftaro and taken for the night to our hotel. It was enroute that I was faced with the first challenge to my western mindset. Placed in an automobile alone with two Syrians, one a woman named Sanah, our female hostess, the other a male driver, I began to recall the media accounts of Westerners being kidnapped in the Middle East. Images of Terry Waite flashed their message of suspicion, even though I had entered the country informed that Damascus was not, as a rule the home of Islamic extremist.
It was ten o'clock at night and only the shadows of the surrounding fields could be seen racing by outside the window of the black 1980 something sedan. Sanah sat attentively but silently beside me in her black skirt and jacket that obediently honored the teachings of the Qur'an, to dress modestly, not revealing any flesh but the hands and face. Her white hijab (the head covering of the Muslim female) was wrapped gracefully and intentionally about her head and neck concealing all of her hair, so I cannot tell you whether she is a brunette or a graying black, or even a reddish auburn.
I was looking at this face, when I became intensely curious to ask why she wore only a scarf - unlike some women I'd seen in the airport that exposed nothing but their eyes. They had shrouded themselves with the black garment that we would find garnishing the pages of Life Magazine. I pondered quietly: If I ask a question that upsets her cultural dignity could my ignorance pave the way for a volatile visit? After all, I still have three days here before returning to Jordan. And by the way, are there any dirt roads intersecting this highway that might lead me away from the rest of my delegation and should I handle myself in an inappropriate manner? After all, liberated or not as a western woman, I am not at home. I am, in light of cautious wisdom, vulnerable. I am not one to keep silent, however. Risk-taking tends to make me tick (though not to the level it did as a youth) and satisfying my curious nature tends to overrule my caution. I asked, masking coyly my consternation, for an explanation of Islamic dress. Contrary to my western suspicion, there was no offense in her response. She explained to me the reason behind the hijab.
The hijab is part of modesty. Modesty is the real issue in the Qur'an. Depending on the cultural upbringing of the Muslim female, different sects, localities or tribes help to shape an individual's interpretation of modesty. The woman is to respond, honestly, to her convictions as a true Muslim. (Muslim means one surrendered or submitted to God.) Although most Muslims believe that the traditional Islamic dress is to wear un-transparent loose clothing and to show the face and hands, some people go beyond the tradition. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but the Qur'an warns against extremism. Other women, however, cover themselves entirely (as I saw later in the week when an elderly woman passed me with even her eyes draped in black. I assume the material was thin enough to give her the vision she needed to find her way around town). Yet some other women in the new and younger generation are questioning altogether the wearing of the hijab (as the Jordanian Times reported concerning this controversial changing of the times). The heart of the action is to dress in a way that would not tempt a man.
Every congregation in all religions seems to have its unspoken dress code and its own belief system in regards to modest and appropriate dress. If I go to Sioux County, Iowa where my parents were reared, they would interpret modesty with quite a different approach from my Orange County, California, beach going neighbors. (I speak from the background of being reared in a Protestant Christian home with a Southern California flavor but each of us could supply our own societal religious norm and, if we allowed ourselves to, discover a thread of similarity in motive to the Middle East Muslim). In this willingness to understand exists the potential to promote brotherhood not only between Muslims and Christians, but also within the whole of humanity.
It was the next day that we would meet with the Mufti in his home for the breaking of the Islamic fast of Ramadan. The world, as I had come to know it, would change. I would find myself looking into the eyes of a man who reflected gentleness and sincerity in a way I have seldom seen in anyone. These were not the eyes of a bloodthirsty warrior. And the words that I would hear would be laced with such profound wisdom that respect would forever embed itself in my image of the true Muslim. These were not words of war. And the touch of an aged withering hand was not the touch of violence. It was so soft that I would wish many times over after our departure that I could feel it just once more.
One of the most profound comments the Mufti made during our three day visit was when he shared with us this illustration: Religion is like rain. It falls upon the people and refreshes them. But then the extremist comes along and he pollutes the rain, retaking it unhealthy for all, poisoning any that would drink it. The comradery between my father and the Mufti was amazing. And the similarity in message was stunning. I heard from the Mufti things that my father has voiced for decades. They spoke of their common ground that has produced in each a voice that is enigmatic and controversial to their spiritual colleagues.
I haven't seen any person that has NO good in him - each person has his own key - may Allah give us the divine key. (Grand Mufti Kuftaro)
There is a need in humanity that is greater than meaning. It is the need for DIGNITY. (Dr. Robert Schuller)
Faith must meet with reason - through understanding. (Grand Mufti Kuftaro)
Arrogance exists in many. We tend to convince ourselves that we each have all of the answers. If I have all of the answers then I don't need you. I don't need to link with my neighbor or listen to his voice. (Dr. Robert Schuller)
The twenty-first century is the century of peace. (Grand Mufti Kuftaro)
We must close the door on the dark ages of the last millennium. We must enter the new millennium with a commitment toward peace. (Dr. Robert Schuller)
The next day would enhance the profundity of our trip. Our delegation would be welcomed into the Abu Nour Mosque to listen to my father's address to 15,000 Muslims. Also present would be two Orthodox Patriarchs, one high ranking Catholic priest who was representing the Roman Catholic Patriarch in Rome, and the President of the Armenian Evangelical Community of Syria. It was Friday, December 17 at 11 am. (5: 00 am. EST).
The opening to the peace talks in Washington would be finished and we would be among the Syrian people who have prayed for years, not unlike their Israeli counter-parts, for peace in their land.
We would watch the beauty of two like-hearted men, sitting side by side, sharing a common message of peace. We would see them clutch hands in affectionate brotherhood. We would hear murmurs of enlightenment rising from the great congregation as pleasant -surprise at the likeness between these two leaders replaced uninformed skepticism in the people. We would give and receive warm smiles and bonding grins. We would see wet emotion wiped from shrouded eyes (ours included since we also donned head coverings).
We would all chuckle with common response to pleasant and heartwarming jests between the Easterner and the Westerner. And we would hear these admonitions from my father as he delivered his forty-minute sermon in this great Muslim mosque: "God wants us to work together for peace in the next century starting today! I would like to tell the world - do not think of me as a Christian, a term coined by humans. Think of me as a follower of Jesus Christ. Forget about religion, think of us as brothers and sisters.
We all believe in "Shahadah'' "Witnessing" - do this with a smile, with kindness, with love." (The Mufti nods in sincere agreement). "We cannot support aggression and hatred. We must not look back. We must look to the future! I have a dream that positive Christians and positive Muslims and positive Jews can and will write a new history of caring and co-service. Together we will move our world, our children, and our children's children from collision to coalition."- (Dr. Robert Schuller)
My father would end his message with a story of a group of Down Syndrome children. These Special Olympic competitors were lining up at the start of the 100 yard dash, each intending to be the first to cross the finish line. Bang! The signal to start pierces the air. The racers jump from their starting places and race for the finish line, Suddenly, one of the racers trips, falling to his knees. Hearing his cries, his competitors stop. Not a one continues the race. They turn around to share his pain and grief. Now, every racer approaches the one who has fallen in the dust. Gently, compassionately, they raise him to his feet. Linking arms and smiling, they all head to the finish line, crossing it together.
My father then concluded: Let us run the race of peace, with arms and hearts interlocked together. And the Mufti concurred: "We are entrusted to act upon this message and spread it to the world. It is a must for us to prepare and pave the way of Christ's coming, that humans should become brothers of each other. None of you is a believer unless he loves for another what he loves for himself. We believe that we must teach the world what Islam is. (Islam means Peace)
I am optimistic that this is heartfelt, that we will see what Dr Schuller and I have said to you. We are entrusted to act upon our message and spread it to the world. The world is not a small village but one family. If peace is achieved in our hearts, with God, peace will be achieved in the whole world. I pray our hopes will be fulfilled. Peace be upon you all. Praise be to God."
The audience of 15,000, 5 thousand in the great hall and overlooking balconies, along with the 10 thousand that watched by closed circuit television in overflow rooms, were all deeply moved. I entered Syria with one mindset. I left with quits another. I entered listing her sins and the sins of her people. I left observing my own. If we point out the sins of one nation, we cannot, we MUST not, ignore the sins of the other nations.
Very often, our greatest adversary resides in our own camp. I am ashamed that my forefathers, the Christian Crusaders, raped and pillaged the Holy Lands. It was a devout Jew who assassinated Ithzak Rabin as he sang a song of peace. And it is a few Muslim terrorists who spreads fear in the world today. All of us know that the list could go on. We have all, at one time or another desecrated our holy beliefs and creeds.
As the Mufti said, "Extremists discolor the beautiful face of Islam." We who desire to live by a religious creed have a choice - we can use our religion to segregate or to congregate our follow humans. Murder does not begin in the hand, it begins in the heart; likewise with peace.
As for the three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we all can stake a claim to a common greeting… "Peace". Let each one of us vow afresh that our millennial resolution will be to live by this greeting and to allow it to govern our hearts and our actions.
And so it is with this greeting and this blessing that I conclude…
Shalom… Salam.... Peace ... on Earth and good will to all men.
Written by, Carol Schuller Milner. December, 1999.
"I entered Syria with one mindset, I left with quite another.
I entered listing her sins and the sins of her people.
I left observing my own." - Carol Schuller Milner