Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College.
Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU) Advisory Board
Are we all becoming – as Time Magazine suggests (Aug 30, 2010) – Islamophobic? According to one of their recent polls, 46% of us believe that Islam is more likely than other faiths to inspire violence against nonbelievers. 34% of us don’t want a Mosque in the neighborhood. According to an August 19 Washington Post poll, 30% of conservative Republicans who dislike Obama claim that he is a Muslim. Is “Muslim” the new political slur?
I’ve just returned from two Muslim countries in the Middle East. And as exposure goes, I’ve probably worked alongside more Muslims than I ever expected I would. I’m in the Middle East at least once each year, usually visiting multiple countries. I belong to an “Evangelical-Muslim” discussion group which meets annually and hosts 30 scholars from each side for 3 days of interfaith discussion. These are pious, brilliant, generous Muslim scholars whom I count as my friends. And when a topic like “Islamophobic America” comes up, I share intense personal emails with them.
But I’ve also come away from the Middle East confused this summer. In August I was speaking before a group of Muslim university students who wanted to talk about Islam and the West. Some were progressive and thoughtful; others were less so. For some time, a dialogue with a couple of young men ran like this: “We pity you Christians.” “Why?” “Because what Christianity teaches is wrong.” “But what do we do if some Christians say that Islam is wrong?” “Then they are wrong.” “But wait, the point is that two people might both claim to be right – and we have to ask: can we live together and accept each other or will we destroy each other?” “If something is wrong it must be stopped.” “So what do you propose we do to people who don’t believe in Islam?” “Eventually people who teach wrong things should be arrested.”
Before I had a chance to unleash my own rhetorical broadside (a daring thing in itself considering I was in a Muslim city), the entire other half of the room exploded along with the Muslim professor. The Arabic flew so fast and furious my translator could barely keep up. You can’t possibly mean that! What you say is not Islam! What you say is offensive! But I could see that the target of this barrage was not persuaded. His eyes narrowed. He went silent. Later when we dismissed, a circle of five women students cornered him for more punishing debate.
I expect this sort of rigid position among those who are not educated. For instance, when I took a taxi home from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, my driver was from Pakistan. Another backseat conversation: “Where have you been?” “The Middle East.” “I wish I lived in a Muslim country.” “Is it hard to live here?” “Yes. Too much wickedness.” “What’s an example?” “Bikinis.” “Anything else?” “People don’t follow Islam.” “But maybe they believe in something else.” “They’re wrong.” “What should we do with people that disagree with Islam?” “They should be punished.” “You mean the police should arrest them?” “Yes.”
I felt jangled. And immediately I dashed off an email to a Muslim scholar – a good friend – who lives in Canada. He wrote me: “The reality is that Muslims, like any faith community, have a wide spectrum of backgrounds, influences, mentalities, and other things that define a "religious" human being.” Of course; I knew that I but needed a reminder: every religion has types that represent only one place in the religious spectrum.
During the week of my return home the mosque furor in New York was filling the headlines. Here were progressive, modern Muslims (led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement) who were Sufis (think Muslim Mennonites), working with the local Jewish leadership, and wanting to build a community center modeled after the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. They found 9/11 to be offensive and wanted to do something good in response. And Americans were condemning them. Some were using the same religious slogans I’d heard in the Middle East from the Muslim side of this debate.
Through these experiences and my many conversations with Muslims, a handful of new ideas have surfaced that perhaps we will need to explore.
First, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance may have more to do with cultural resistance against the west than with religion per se. Religion is a tool – often used by many – to express dislike of “the other.” I doubt that when the Taliban killed those medical workers in N. Afghanistan this summer, they were doing it “because they were missionaries.” The Taliban saw them as a projection of western/American influence and this was their barbaric way of fighting back. These Taliban have as much in common with Islam as the KKK has in common with Christianity. For some Muslim scholars, religious violence has been characteristic of “post colonial” societies. They reach for ways to express resistance. Many do it violently.
Second, like Christianity Islam is deeply variegated. There are fundamentalists who are shockingly intolerant and there are progressives who have chosen to live alongside others peacefully. In discussions with Muslim scholars, I’ve asked what to do with Quranic verses describing conquest of non-believers. They open the Bible to the book of Joshua and pose the same hermeneutical problem to me: Do these texts still define how you treat non-believers? Touché. But tolerance is a virtue well-pursued by each of us. My running theory has been that education helps enormously. But I now think that tolerance and diversity are two of the good gifts the west has given the world. Not that we embrace this faithfully ourselves (think: Serbia, Ireland or Selma). I have Muslim friends in Toronto, West Amman and Ras Beirut who would find the Muslim faith of some parts of rural west Pakistan alarming.
Third, I am still unsettled about one feature of this discussion. Indeed we must do our part to understand Islam more accurately. And we have to make a place for Muslims – all 2.5 million of them – here in the United States. But I also yearn to hear my Muslim friends speak up for parallel tolerance for Christians living in Muslim countries. Privately Middle Eastern Christians will confide that they have enormous struggles just living as Christians in their countries. To build a church or school – even to avoid employment discrimination – are problems few will discuss openly. When will Christians in the Muslim world enjoy the same freedoms Muslims in America call for today? Is it not ironic that we are discussing the freedom to build a mosque in central New York when building a major new church in Damascus, Cairo, Tripoli or Riyadh would be unimaginable?
I am not hopeful that my Pakistani taxi driver or narrowly educated fundamentalist students in the Middle East will appreciate the nuances of these three concerns. They probably think that tolerant, progressive Muslims have lost the true faith. I simply remember that circle of five young Muslim women – wearing their hijab (head scarves) proudly – who were unrelenting as they backed one angry young man into the corner. They understood what must be done (and who must do it) to help this conversation and they understood who had to do it.