Why you should visit a Muslim country

Travel to a Muslim country. Travel there now.

Make it Malaysia, or Indonesia, or somewhere in the Middle East. Go to northern India, or Morocco. It doesn't really matter which one you choose – just get to a Muslim country and experience the culture for yourself.

Because Australia seems to have a problem. There's a disconnect here between the Islam we perceive – the scary, high-terror-alert Islam – and the one that really exists overseas. It's a misunderstanding, a fear of Muslim people driven as much by a handful of extremists as a crisis-hungry media, an unpopular government, and a general lack of knowledge of what this religion and its adherents are all about.

The answer, for me, is travel.

Travel to a Muslim country. Spend time there, mix with the people, see the sights, walk the streets, eat the food, drink the tea. Very quickly you will begin to realise that this is not an enemy. The women who've been abused on Australia's streets for wearing the hijab are not an enemy. The men pouring out of the suburban Sydney mosques are not an enemy.

I don't profess to be an expert on Islam, but I know what I've seen when I've travelled. I know what it's like to visit countries like Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Malaysia and Indonesia. I know how I've been treated there, how I've been welcomed. It's surprising and humbling, warm and friendly. It changes the way you see the Muslim world.

This is not your enemy. It's the crazy few spoiling it for the kind-hearted many.

True Islamic culture is not what you see on the news, it's what you see on the streets. It's the Turkish taxi driver who stopped to buy me a bottle of water on the way to my hotel, just because I sounded thirsty.

It's the multitude  of Iranian people who spotted me, an obvious stranger in their country, and made a point of approaching to say hello, or to give me a welcome, or just to smile and shake my hand.

Iran was the game-changer. My ongoing love of the country has become something of a joke in the Fairfax Traveller office. Every story I pitch seems to have some reference to Iran. Every time I'm given free rein on a story: Iran. 

I loved Iran, not just for the beauty of the sights but for the warmth and generosity of the people I met there. These aren't citizens of some mythical "Axis of Evil", you realise – they're just normal people trying to live their lives and do the best for their families. 

Their government is a little unhinged. But would you want all Australians to be judged by ours?

The first person I met in Iran was a taxi driver who looked up a phrasebook on his lap while he was driving in order to be able to say, simply, "Welcome to Iran". A kid on a motorbike almost crashed into a fruit stand because he was so desperate to say hello.

A young guy called Hamid became my unofficial guide in Esfahan, showing me all the sights of his city over the course of a few days, just because he could. Some students at a mosque gave my friend Michelle an hour-long tour of the building, just because they wanted to. Day after day, hour after hour, I was bowled over by the kindness of strangers.

I realised, as well, that Islam is not an obsession for many Muslims, just as Christianity is far from an obsession here. There are some in Iran (and many other Islamic countries) who follow their religion fervently, but just as many who would ignore the calls to prayer in order to continue their shopping in the bazaar, or who would drink tea and chat with friends while others streamed towards the mosques.  

Those who've begun to fear or dislike Muslim people in Australia, or accuse them of failing to adhere to "our" values, show a huge misunderstanding of the Muslim cultures I've experienced – a similar misunderstanding to those who may attempt to commit a terrorist act in that religion's name. 

Islam isn't a cult of violence and aggression, but a culture of hospitality and warmth. You realise this when you travel. When someone in Indonesia treats you so kindly, or someone in Morocco invites you to dine with their family, or someone in Jordan refuses payment for tea just because you're a guest, you realise this. 

Travel won't provide the answers to all the world's problems, but a little more understanding couldn't hurt. So travel to a Muslim country. And enjoy it.