You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall (although if you’re a woman, you’re squeezed into a slice of it at the side). You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak — and have your picture snapped with him afterward.
A friend who often travels to Saudi Arabia for business said he thought that Medina, the site of Muhammad’s tomb, was beginning to “loosen up” for non-Muslims. (As the second holiest city in Islam, maybe they needed to try harder.) But the Saudis nixed a trip there.
I assumed I at least could go to a mosque at prayer time, as long as I wore an abaya and hijab, took off my shoes, and stayed in the back in a cramped, segregated women’s section. The magnificent Blue Mosque in Istanbul, once the center of one of the greatest Muslim empires, is a huge tourist draw.
But at the Jidda Hilton, I was told that non-Muslims could not visit mosques — not even the one on the hotel grounds.
A Saudi woman in Jidda told me that the best way to absorb Islam was to listen to the call for prayer while standing on the corniche by the Red Sea at sunset.
That was indeed moving, but I didn’t feel any better equipped to understand the complexities of Islam that even Saudis continually debate — and where radical Islam fits in. Or to get elucidation on how, as Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria put it, “the veil is not the same as the suicide belt.”
I too could not participate in going to Mecca or Medina because I am not a believer.
Such is pilgrimage!
Shalom and Salaam,