Thursday, March 24, 2016
Islam, Muslims, and the Importance of Knowing the Difference
"Islam is a diverse religion with many expressions, though unfortunately there is a demonstrable tendency among Muslims to assume only one legitimate interpretation of Islam" -Nabeel Qureshi
Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, few people in the west gave much thought to Islam. Most non-Muslim Americans were aware of their fellow Muslim citizens, but because they kept their distance and never really got to know them, they had summarily stereotyped their understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Islam.
After 9/11, rather than seeking to understand through relationships, many Americans just added a suicide vest to that stereotype. Too many of this year's Presidential candidates have jumped on that bandwagon with suggestions that range from monitoring American mosques to special ID badges for Muslim citizens. And all of this is fueled by the generalized assumption that "Islam hates the west" or "Islam's values are antithetical to America's values." These are strange statements to the many Muslims who have lived peacefully among us for many decades now. I have a friend who served as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush, who currently works with an organization that promotes global religious freedom. He has been a devout Muslim his entire life.
In December while at a meeting in Washington I met a former Ambassador who served during the Reagan administration--also a devout Muslim. Fighting back tears, her concern was obvious. "I don't recognize my own country any more," she said. I have another dear Muslim friend, a young professional with a wife and young child who is building a quiet life in the country for his family. He is pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-business, and believes in small, limited government. And just recently he told me "I'm a Republican, but I fear voting for one this year might be voting for my own extermination." I could go on, but these stories alone should demonstrate that Islamophobia is alive and well. That national tension was exponentially increased with this week's ISIS attacks in Belgium. The temptation to assess based on fear is understandable, but dangerous to our civil discourse, and for those who follow Jesus, it is simply antiChrist.
As an Evangelical pastor, I'm not particularly fond of Islam--not because I believe it is a threat to national security, but because I believe it endangers the soul. But I know and walk in relationship with numerous Muslims, and I love every one of them. Some of them have become like brothers to me, and in watching those relationships develop I've learned many valuable lessons. But perhaps the most important lesson is this: Islam is a highly diverse religion, practiced in at least three "denominational" expressions among more than 1.7 billion people worldwide. Any religion with that many adherents can't simply be painted into a simplistic corner. In fact, the best way to understand isn't to read a book about Islam, but to simply get to know your Muslim neighbor. In other words, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is transpiring in our world, we have to distinguish between "Islam" and "Muslims." There are several reasons for this:
1. Faith is not a Monolith. Think of the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in Armenia, and a Pentecostal preacher in Alabama. Both are "Christian." But they don't look or sound very much like each other, do they? That same sort of diversity exists within Islam. My Turkish Muslim friends in Baltimore are anything but identical to my friend in Hagerstown who is a Burmese Imam. Faith is a very personal thing to devout Muslims, and beyond the "five pillars" you will find a wide degree of opinion on a large number of issues. Just ask them!
2. Systems are not People. There are numerous Catholics who are on the pill. Multitudes of Baptists consume alcohol regularly. I have a Reconstructionist Rabbi friend who will not refuse a good slice of ham. In this regard, Islam is no different. Once you actually get to know the people who call themselves "Muslim" you discover numerous opinions on everything from shellfish to alcohol to head coverings
3. History is not Theology. In recent years, an understandable question has emerged regarding which Islam is the "true" Islam? While I sympathize with this curiosity, as a Christian theologian I have to refuse the premise of that question. For Christians, our faith is rooted in and dependent upon the death and bodily resurrection of the Jesus of history (among other things). But to appeal to "true Islam" by seeking its historical roots is, in my view, to commit a two-fold error. First, doing so assumes an historical timeline that bears the same validity as our own faith, and I simply reject that. But additionally, seeking to trace the historical roots of Islam in order to ferret out its "real" theology is to ignore that Muslims themselves worldwide rarely connect the two. Though Muhammad is revered by all, his life, beliefs, and actions are understood very differently even within the Muslim world. It is, therefore, unfair of us to ascribe a belief system to our Muslim neighbors that is rooted in an understanding of Islamic history they themselves may reject.
4. Lecturing isn't listening. I was 12,000 miles from home, sitting with my wife across the table from the only other white people in a Chinese city of more than 2 million. The husband--an Indianapolis police officer--asked me what I did for a living, and when I said "I'm a Baptist pastor," he responded with the only reference point he had--Westboro "Baptist" Church, and said "so you are the folks who hate gay people?"
Feel that sting? That's the same sting your Muslim neighbors feel when you lecture them about what they "really" believe. So just don't do it.
Too many Christ followers make generalized claims such as "well, if they were really following the Koran they wouldn't be so 'peaceful.'"
I'm really thankful that when most non-Christians read Exodus 31:12-15, Leviticus 20:10, Numbers 21:34-35, Joshua 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, or any of the other 842 violent passages in Scripture, they give me the benefit of the doubt. Some even allow me the courtesy of explaining where these passages fit within the larger context of my faith. I think we owe our Muslim neighbors the same courtesy with regard to Sura 2. I'm not even saying their interpretation is the right one. But let's allow them to tell us what they believe. They can't do that if we are lecturing instead of listening.
Instead, get to know them, assume you really don't know what they believe--because you don't. Ask questions. Have a conversation. Get to know each other.
There is much fear in our culture, but followers of Jesus who walk in the Spirit don't walk in fear (2 Timothy 1:7). So let's stop talking about "Islam" and get to know a few Muslims. For one, we have a mandate to share our faith--a topic most of them are eager to discuss. But even if they never believe as we do, there is a pretty good chance that a deep friendship will result that will bless you both.
It also happens to be an excellent way to defeat terror and bigotry at the same time.