Each year, September 11 brings up visceral memories for millions of Americans. Feelings of fear and uncertainty. Mental images of dust settling around Manhattan, buildings collapsing, and first responders working endlessly. And so many questions. How could this happen? Who would commit such a violent act?
And now, the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya have brought up many of the same questions. Though many legitimate questions about the attack remain, the perpetrators are, in fact, known: Islamic terrorists with ties to al Qaeda. Once again, Americans are drawn to the turmoil in the Middle East and the tension of two different narratives: one of violent, jihad-driven Islamists and one of Muslim neighbors simply trying to make a good life for themselves. So how do we make sense of the images we see on network news each night and the snapshots many of us observe in our neighborhoods, towns, and communities? What are the worldwide implications of these competing narratives, and how do we engage Muslims in light of that?
A Story of Two Islams: Traditional and Reformed
Although similarities do exist between Christianity and Islam, there are myriad differences. One similarity is that there are “denominational differences” in Islam just as there are in Christianity. Varying interpretations of the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sunnah — the three authoritative texts of Islam — have produced different forms of Islam, according to Dr. Nabeel Qureshi, a Summit lecturer and former Muslim. Broadly speaking, some Muslims adhere to a traditionalist Islam, which takes all the material in the three sources literally. Others, meanwhile, adhere to a reformed Islam, which dismisses the abusive aspects of Islam by claiming they are no longer culturally relevant, especially when they are violent and mistreat women. Qureshi’s theory is that the worldwide rise in violence among Muslims in recent years is due to the spread of information. More Muslims are now able to see the original texts for themselves, including calls to violence. This rising awareness, though, has also fueled the growth of reformed Islam. “All [of reformed Islam’s] teachings don’t jive with original sources,” Qureshi said. As far as Islam’s ability to assimilate into other cultures, Muslim rejection of Islam’s violent teachings is a good thing.
Abdu Murray, also a former Muslim and another Summit lecturer, agreed that many Muslims — particularly those in the West — simply don’t adhere to many of the commands of Islamic scripture. “I can’t tell you how many Muslims are nominal at best,” he said. “They are [only] cultural Muslims. If it were a crime to be an orthodox Muslim, they couldn’t be convicted of it.” That’s why he says it’s important for non-Muslims to note well the difference between Islam — the actual religion left by Muhammad, which calls for violence toward nonbelievers and a full political ideology — and Muslims — those who say they follow Islam. “We have to understand there’s a spectrum of Muslims,” he said. “They hold their worldview with a varying degree of tightness.”
Even the Islamic scriptures themselves are conflicting. At various places within the Qur’an (the Islamic holy book, written by Muhammad), the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and the Sunnah (doctrines of practice lived out or advocated by Muhammad) violence is in fact a flagstone (see surah 9 of the Qur’an, for example). Other passages advocate for peace. Alan Shlemon, another Summit lecturer, said the explanation for the texts’ discrepancies is pretty simple. Muhammad wrote different parts of the Qur’an during two different times of his life: his time in Mecca and the last half of his life after fleeing to Medina. Muhammad’s time in Mecca was peaceful, while his time in Medina, as his popularity grew, was much more violent. Thus, the discrepancies in the Qur’an, his sayings, and the practices he advocated.
Islam Plays a Strong Part on the World Stage
As David Noebel and Jeff Myers outlined in Understanding the Times, all worldviews speak into ten specific disciplines, one of them being politics, and Islam is no different. Islamic governments, like Muslims themselves, vary in scope in their adherence to Islamic scriptures. Many enforce Islamic law — sharia — on their citizens. According to Abdu Murray, an example of that end of the spectrum is what we’re seeing in Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood, adherents of traditional Islam, wrest control from what had been a mostly secular Islamic regime.
One implication of the growth of traditional Islam is that non-Muslims in countries like Egypt may be treated as second-class citizens. According to the Qur’an, Islamic countries have a right to charge non-Muslims a special tax (called jivya) in order to live under the protection of the state. In other Islamic nations, such as Iran, sharia law is heavily enforced. The violence that we see in the Middle East can be used to point toward Christ, though. Murray says that as with all conflict, violence in and around Islamic countries is usually followed by three reactions:
- Sorrow of loss
- Demand for justice
- Cry for love
The Christian worldview addresses all three of these needs in unique ways, says Murray. “A Gospel-centered answer to these questions is there, as opposed to a political solution,” he said. So even amongst the conflicts we see in headlines, opportunities abound to point out to Muslims the power of the Gospel. “There’s a way to use the conflict,” Murray exhorted.
One of the dangers of the current political landscape is that many Western leaders are so influenced by secularism, they fail to see the far-reaching implications Islam has in the political sphere, potentially putting more people at risk. Secularism posits that all things religious are relegated to private life and shouldn’t affect the public square. “As a matter of definition, secularists will never understand Muslims and never understand the Middle East,” Murray said. “That’s the complete opposite of Islam.” Such misunderstandings can lead to an underestimation of the willingness of Islamists to use state power to coerce others or carry out jihad. It’s a mistake that, as we saw in Benghazi, can end tragically.
How Do We Engage Islam in the Public Square at Home?
Ironically, secularism can also be an unwitting friend to Islamists in non-Islamic countries. The secular belief that religion is innocuous if kept private, combined with an obsession for a political correctness that disallows the critiquing of any religion other than Christianity — can actually give way to a minority religion like Islam having more sway in the public sphere. “Secularism is, in fact, a pushover,” Murray said. “It almost sounds like we’re being thoughtful [to not criticize others’ religion]. And it sounds very nice. But I think, frankly, it’s not truly thoughtful. If America were a more Christian culture, you’d find a more informed, thoughtful response to the things that speak to the Muslim mind.”
After seeing examples of sharia law take hold in pockets of Western Europe, some in the U.S. worry the same thing will happen here. Nabeel Qureshi was actually arrested and jailed in Dearborn, Michigan, just for engaging in Christian evangelism with Muslims at an Islamic festival. Even so, he says we cannot afford to take a merely defensive posture. “We’re far too reactionary,” he said. “We tend to react to things that happen and pull away from the culture.” Damage control in this sense is sometimes necessary, but it is often too little, too late. “Culture is what controls the mindset of the next generation,” he continued. “ We need to [proactively] engage culture from a Christian mindset.”
If there are places where the Muslim/secularist worldview — or other worldviews, for that matter — begin to coerce non-Muslims, fighting to maintain freedom of expression is paramount, Qureshi said. “We definitely need to stand up for our ability to speak freely. But it’s still not enough; it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.”
Advice for Day-to-Day Interactions with Muslims
Even in spite of political, cultural, and legal differences, Shlemon encouraged Christians not to fear monger. Most Muslims we encounter day-to-day in the West seek merely to live peacefully and support themselves and their families; they’re not violent jihadists. “Even if they were, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like God’s called us to be ambassadors to only peaceful people.” Qureshi, Murray, and Shlemon all had practical advice for Christians engaging more intentionally with Muslims:
- Ask honest questions. Because of the diversity of thought within Islam, Qureshi encourages Christians to ask questions in order to get to know their Muslim friends and their beliefs. Don’t assume you know all the particulars of their beliefs.
- Ask about Jesus. Muslims love talking about their faith. “It’s not like secularism, where politics and religion are taboo,” Murray said.
- Be sensitive to Muslim sensitivities. Shlemon advises Christians to avoid things that are automatically off-putting to Muslims. Don’t approach a Muslim of the opposite sex alone; don’t bring up controversial claims about Muhammad being a pedophile, for example, while still building a relationship.
If the tide of culture is to be turned, Christians ought to interact with and love Muslims of all stripes. “God is making his appeal through us,” Shlemon said. “Our mandate is to go out and speak to people about Jesus so that they can be reconciled to God. It doesn’t matter whether nominal, reformed, or radical.”