Praycations and pilgrimages

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Religion is all about seeking, and the experience of it usually involves some sort of travel, be it via a metaphysical faith journey or an actual pilgrimage. Ben Bowler, a clever Australian social entrepreneur living in Thailand has combined the two in what’s been dubbed ‘praycations.’

Muslim pilgrims at the Grand mosque during the Hajj in Mecca. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

Bowler’s concept is to sell tours like Monk for a Month – literally 30 days at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand – or Muslim for a Month, which is actually either 10 or 21 days in Turkey exploring two kinds of Islamic belief.

The idea is not without controversy, though not because the tours aim to convert anyone (they don’t). The South China Morning Post Magazine noted that Monk for a Month drew complaints because Bowler was selling an experience that typically Thais choose to do without paying. He says he is not selling access to the monks, but for arranging travel to a remote part of Thailand and providing tourist experiences, and that the abbot at the monastery has no issues with his tour. He also notes that Buddhist temples often have people come on a short-term basis. Separately,  some travel agencies have refused to book Muslim for a Month (the magazine speculates it was because it involves a trip related to Islam.)

As Bowler noted, “When my friends and family in Australia heard that we were offering a new cultural immersion programme called Muslim for a Month, half of them cracked the same joke – ‘Will we be learning how to make bombs?’

He thinks, of course, that they miss the point of his program, which is to improve cultural understanding. As he told The Telegraph, “We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press.”

Bowler told the Brisbane Times that he thought secular Westerners were seeking, and extended vacations were a good way to learn about religion. This summer will see the start of Tibetan Monk for  Month in Northern India, including a tour to Dharamshala, seat of the Dalai Llama. Inter-faith tours in India and Turkey start in August. Next on his list is Christian for a Month in Scotland.

If his trips start to make money, he intends to give 20 percent of his profits to social causes.

Halting the Hajj subsidy

Perhaps the best-knwn pilgrimage is The Hajj, the annual gathering of Muslim faithful in Mecca. Every Muslim is supposed to make this trip at least once in their lives, as long as it does not cause undue financial hardship.

To help with that, India’s government has offered money to the country’s Muslim adherents since the 1930s, well before the state was formed in 1947. Some 170,000 Indian Muslims make the Hajj each year, and about 125,000 receive a half-price air fare (about $300 off) on Air India flights, subsidized by the government. This past week, India’s Supreme Court directed the government to shift the subsidy over the next decade from the Hajj to education and other benefits for the Muslim community in India.

The Times of India cited the judge who wrote the order as saying, “The subsidy money may be more profitably used for uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development.”

The India press questioned why the subsidy wasn’t killed immediately, with some proposing that the Indian government was giving Air India time to prepare for the loss of a lucrative subsidy.

A debate in the pages of The Times of India applauded, on the one side, the removal of government nepotism and red tape from an intensely personal experience. On the other, it grumbled about why the government didn’t continue to support the Hajj, when it still supports other religious pilgirimmages in the country.

Perhaps those other pilgrimages don’t prop up an airline, or have nepotistic subsidy practices (the court also made the government reduce the number of free trips it gives out, from 30 to 2). The faithful will likely find a way to make the journey.


Straight to the Source