Emirati cyclist embarks on tour of understanding in Europe after terror attack in Nice
AJMAN // The lorry attack on Nice in July that claimed 86 lives provoked much debate in France and beyond about Islam in the west but it was also the catalyst for one Emirati to embark on an educational journey.
The terrorist incident and the subsequent questions about Muslims in Europe prompted amateur cyclist Rashed Al Yafai to take his bike and go on a pedal-powered 500km tour of France and Belgium in an attempt to dispel myths surrounding his religion.
The 40-year-old and two European friends whom he met via Facebook - one from Belgium and the other from France - embarked on a tour last month that took them through Brussels, Revin and Rue de Bertinquesmes, while also visiting 67 villages in three days.
“I’ve been an amateur cyclist for eight years and through cycling, I know these two guys,” said Mr Al Yafai, who is a director at Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority.
“My relationship with them is formal as we only contact through WhatsApp or Skype to talk about bicycles and spare parts.
“After the terrorist attacks in Europe, especially the one in Nice, we were talking on WhatsApp and their way was a little bit critical, they asked me, ‘why you Muslims do this to us? Why do you hate us?’.
“It was my duty as a Muslim to explain to them that those behind these attacks are not Muslims. I told them, ‘these are extremist groups that do not belong to Islam’.
“I gave them the example of the UAE, an Islamic country that spreads charity costing millions of dirhams to Muslim and non-Muslim communities.”
Three days later, the two Europeans, who live in France and Belgium respectively, contacted Mr Al Yafai, who is from Abu Dhabi, and asked if he wanted to do a cycling tour in Europe.
“I liked the idea, so I decided to go there holding with me Islam’s message and being the ambassador of my homeland abroad,” he said.
“They loved the idea of visiting villages in Europe and telling people the real meaning of Islam and we started planning for it.”
After a month of intensive training, Mr Al Yafai was ready to begin.
“We tried as much as we could to pass by a large number of villages and we chose villages, not cities, because people in cities are always busy,” he said.
“I took with me the UAE flag and printed it on my suit along with the logo of the union and wore a UAE flag scarf too. This was a way to attract people and get them to stop us for a discussion. “Some people were looking at me and moving on. Others were stopping us and asking, ‘Where are you from? From which cycling team? What are you doing here?’
“My friends were talking to them in English or French on behalf of me and telling them, ‘he is our friend from the UAE’. And they kept asking, ‘where is the UAE?’ because most of them do not know the UAE, they just know Dubai.
“Through this we started opening up a conversation about the UAE and Islam, which is a religion of love and peace.”
The Europeans he spoke to were satisfied with what he had to say, said Mr Al Yafai. “They had acceptance of what we told them, with a smile and satisfaction. Some of them promised me that they would spread the message they got,” he said.
Mr Al Yafai also bonded well with his two cycling partners and he has now invited them to the UAE to get a true flavour of Emirati culture.
Updated: September 23, 2016 04:00 AM