Christina Patterson: Patterns in the marble, and a lesson in history

In Syria's secular, highly educated society, it is possible for religious faith to be a force for good
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On Monday, in Damascus, I saw the light. It was bouncing off the gleaming marble tiles of beautiful courtyards, glittering on exquisite medieval mosaics, filtered through the holes in the roof of the old souk and, most dramatically, sparkling on the fountain of the courtyard of the 18th-century caravanserai off the road which the Bible, in a rare stroke of irony, calls (because it isn't) "the road called straight".

It was on this road that Saul of Tarsus was blinded by a shaft of light. The rest is history, or at least a not very straight road leading to love, joy, peace, the Crusades and George W Bush.

My own Damascene conversion started down the road with a fat man in a suit. We were sipping tiny cups of cardamom-infused coffee in a large room with a delicately painted ceiling, carved wooden tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and gorgeous brocade sofas. The hall, I later discovered, was called "the hall of peace", and the man was an imam, Dr Salah Kuftaro, son of the late Grand Mufti of Syria and director of the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, which runs a university, several schools, an orphanage, charities and a mosque.

"Certain parts of the media want to attack Islam and attack Arabs," said the man in the suit, after the customary blizzard of blessings and welcomes, "in order to steal the blessings of Islam." Oh dear. The guidebook hadn't offered advice on how to escape when stranded with a religious nutter in a country where hospitality is sacrosanct and sudden unexplained departure the height of rudeness. I stared at the beautiful vases, and the patterns in the marble floor, and girded myself for the propaganda that would follow. Evil, decadent West, no way but Allah, time for a revolution, etc.

It didn't come. Instead, speaking through an interpreter called Osama (yes, Osama!), the man sitting in the corner gave us a quiet lecture that had me almost blushing with shame. "Can I introduce Christianity through the deeds of President Bush?" he said. "That's like introducing Islam by Osama bin Laden. If Bin Laden had made himself a candidate for election in the Islamic world, he would have got zero votes. The radical Islamic leaders don't have good, clear-cut solutions to the issues of the day."

And then he gave us a history lesson. On how the Sunnis and Shias had lived in harmony until the occupation of Iraq. That this was now destabilising the entire region. That the Holocaust was a crime that could never be justified, but that giving Israel the right to full supremacy over the Arab nations had cast a shadow of fear over the whole region. That the way forward had to be secular states that respect human rights, but that US attempts to force Western-style democracy on the region before the creation of a Palestinian state would cause the mass spread of radical Islam, which would lead to war throughout the world.

"We live here," he said, "in one national Syrian unity. We give lectures in Christian churches. On Fridays, I give Christian leaders the opportunity to preach in front of 10,000 people in our mosque. We think there is just one religion. The problem is not with the religion, it's with the followers. And if religion will be the source of tyranny and war, then I'm an atheist. But we think this is a false kind of religion, for people who try to be under cover of religion to meet political targets. We look forward to building bridges between East and West. If politicians fail, civil society should never fail."

In the Umayyad mosque, that Syrian temple turned Roman temple, turned Byzantine church, turned mosque, a building which, in the seventh century was used by Muslims and Christians at the same time and in whose stunning courtyard families come to relax, after shopping in the souk, Abdul, our erudite guide, announced that he was Muslim, but he was Christian too. Leafing through the Koran, he declared that it didn't say that you mustn't drink, but that it's better not to drink, and that it didn't say anywhere that a woman should wear a veil.

Later, after more wandering through streets in which some women wore little headscarves with their stylish outfits or tight jeans, and some didn't, he took us to the 17th-century house he had bought, and was restoring, in the Old City. Amid the elegant old tiles and frescoes, we shared his delicious Lebanese wine.

Over dinner that evening, Osama, the fiercely intelligent director of a tourism agency, told me that he too regarded himself as Muslim, Christian and Jew. He said that events in Iraq and Lebanon were causing cracks in the region that were now threatening the centuries-old harmony between different religious and ethnic groups. He presented us, the British – co-creators of Israel and co-occupiers of Iraq – with marquetry wooden boxes of delicious Syrian sweets.

In this, the oldest inhabited city in the world, with the oldest alphabet, and the oldest musical notes, and the oldest amphitheatre, and the oldest agriculture, and the oldest minaret, and the most beautiful synagogue I have ever seen, a country which spends a higher proportion of its budget on education than the UK or the US, a country in which (in spite of government censorship) pretty much every household has a computer and satellite telly, I learnt a lesson. I learnt that in a secular, highly educated society, it is possible for religious faith to be a force for good and that it's possible to be generous to your enemies – and that the axis of evil has by far the best sweets.