By Rev. Matt Koerber
We had anticipated from the beginning that the fifth week of the blog would be its most challenging. We reserved this week for a discussion on “Engaging with Islam.” After a one week break from the blog, we returned to find that the topic is more challenging than ever. The newspaper headlines remind us that this topic is relevant for all of the wrong reasons.
On Monday, May 22, a suicide bomber killed 22 civilians at a concert in Manchester, England. The bomber had been reported to the authorities as a suspected terrorist when he previously expressed the views that "he was supporting terrorism" and "being a suicide bomber was okay". The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the truth is unclear. The alleged bomber was a British citizen, born in England to Libyan parents who came to the country as refugees. Classmates reported that he had become increasingly religious and that he had traveled to Libya on several occasions. At some point, he became radicalized.
On Friday, May 26, ISIS gunmen attacked a tour bus full of Coptic Christians, leaving 29 dead. Coptic Christians represent about 10% of Egypt’s population and have been targeted for violent persecution with increasing regularity during recent years. To quote a director from human rights group Amnesty International, “This terrifying wave of attacks has seen Coptic Christians in North Sinai hunted down and murdered by armed groups. No one should face discrimination – let alone violent and deadly attacks – because of their religious beliefs.”
These particular incidents are part of an ongoing trend of violence associated with Islam. Many Muslims condemn such attacks, but the backlash can make life difficult for Muslims living in the West. For example, the Manchester police reported a spike in threats against Muslims in their community after Monday’s bombing. Also on Friday, May 26, in Portland, Oregon, two men were killed while defending a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. It appears that the attacks may have been motivated by animosity towards the religion of the two Muslim women. (It is unclear whether the attacker was mentally competent.) Closer to home, personal friends of mine have expressed the increasing difficulties that they experience as Muslims living in Pittsburgh.
These challenges are particularly relevant to our political dialogue about refugees. This past Fall, there were heightened concerns about Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States because many of the refugees are Muslims. As a candidate, Donald Trump highlighted the fears of some Americans when he called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Since becoming President, his executive order travel bans have created controversy and legal uncertainties.
Beneath the challenging questions of political policy lie more important questions, ones that strike close to the central purpose of this blog. How should Christians think about Islam and Muslims? How should this affect our views on refugees and immigration?Over the course of the next week, we will include a number of different voices from people who are deeply involved in this issue. But for both Kevin and me, this topic is deeply personal.
I have been privileged to travel to both Iraq and Turkey, and last summer my family and I spent two months working with Middle-eastern refugees in Athens, Greece. I have close friendships with many Muslims and I am privileged to have many Muslim neighbors. But the situation is even more personal for Kevin. His home country of Malaysia is predominantly Muslim. He knows first hand the challenges of living as a religious minority in an Islamic country while also enjoying rich friendships with many Muslims.
Like many of the other issues that we have faced, it is worth saying at the outset that this is complicated. It is our conviction that many of the predominant approaches towards Islam are fundamentally flawed. Westerners often find the issue to be foreign and confusing, thus gravitating towards simplistic approaches of understanding. These simplistic approaches for understanding Islam and our engagement with it are inadequate for the task at hand. Let’s consider two competing approaches and then try to sketch a third approach which better represents the facts.
Simple Approach #1: “All Muslims are Terrorists”
In light of the claims of ISIS to be the representatives of true Islam, and in light of the expressed religious convictions of many high profile terrorists, it seems like a short step to draw a one-to-one connection between Islam and religious violence. People who take this interpretation typically assume all Muslims are inherently violent. It may even be assumed that they are under-cover agents who are committed to religious conquest.
What this view fails to regard is that Muslims are not a monolithic group. Throughout the world, many different expressions of Islam are found with different views of religious violence. Individual Muslims believe a wide range of things, and I am thankful to have many personal friends who are both Muslim and committed to peaceful coexistence.
Simple Approach #2: “Islam is a Religion of Peace”
I want to be clear: I do not believe that it is simplistic for a professing Muslim to say that their religious system is committed to peace and nonviolence. I am thankful for the many who do so. What I am thinking of here is the propensity for (well-intentioned) non-Muslim Westerners to offer their assessment of what constitutes “true Islam.” I believe it is only appropriate for a Muslim to speak about “true Islam.” An outsider is not in a position to make those claims. We can only speak of “true Islam” if we believe that Islam is true.
What we can know is this: just as there are many Muslims in the world who affirm the peaceful coexistence of different religions, there are also many people who affirm the necessity of religious violence in the name of Islam. I certainly have a strong preference for the practice of peace-loving moderate Islam over hardline Islam. But it seems that many Westerners are tempted to turn a blind eye towards expressions of religious violence associated with Islam in the name of being “inclusive.” This sort of wishful thinking does not allow us to think carefully about the real-world challenges that that we are facing.
A Third Way
Rather than make blanket statements about the true nature of islam, or claim the ability to judge the true intentions of every Muslim, it is far better to think about the issue in a different way. We can move forward by distinguishing between systems of thought and the individual people who associate with a particular religion.
First, Islam is a religion that has a history and a central book (the Quran). We can examine this history and we can read the book. There are varied approaches to interpreting the Quran and we can talk with people about their approach. We can also make observations about the nature of government and individual freedom in Islamic-dominated countries. These sorts of questions are essential as we seek better understanding between Islam and the West. When we start with presumptions about the true nature of Islam, we short circuit this process. To put myself on record, I believe that there is significant reason for concern in regard to basic human freedoms found in many Muslim-majority countries.
Second, individual Muslims are unique persons, made in God’s image, with dignity and value. Each person may have differing beliefs about religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and other important matters. Experientially, I have found it easy find common ground with many Muslims. In many cases, I have found shared commitments to religious nonviolence and towards safeguarding the dignity of all people. To share a specific example, two years ago I wore a shirt commemorating the Christian victims of ISIS. Since I play soccer with many Muslim friends, I was slightly uncertain of how I would be received. Not only did my friends express deep concern and sympathy towards the victims, as well as a deep hatred towards ISIS, many wanted to buy a similar shirt to express solidarity. I want to go on record to say that I have had a large number of deep relationships with Muslim friends. I cannot write about this topic without recognizing the admirable qualities these friends of mine possess. My life would be impoverished without these friendships.
I am also reminded that throughout the world, religious violence takes a heavy toll on the Islamic community. “Muslim-on-Muslim violence” is a significant problem in many countries, especially between opposing factions. Furthermore, a measure of humility is required when considering this issue, since Christians have also used religious texts to support their injustices. (See: the African Slave Trade.)
Finally, we should remember that Jesus calls Christians to love their neighbors. This command to love directs us to engage with people as individuals and seek their good. We can sometimes find amazing common ground with Muslim neighbors. But even in the absence of common ground, we are called to love our enemies. Loving our enemies does not mean that we take foolish risks or naively assume that everyone is safe. But as a follower of Jesus, I am not excused from loving, even when people are committed to religious violence.
Throughout the week we will hear other voices address this complex matter. We do not expect to resolve something this challenging in a few posts, but I hope that we can begin to model a different manner of engaging with this issue.