What grows in the absence of knowledge? Not just ignorance, but fear. Relationships between most Americans and Muslims are highly charged with fear today, since terrorism has stepped so boldly into the gap of knowledge between our two communities. There’s no minimizing nor justifying terrorism, including our country’s “Shock and Awe” campaign in Iraq twelve years ago. No misdeed justifies another. Yet let us not forget that our Muslim neighbors share the experience of unrelenting terror, finding themselves now the targets of anger and suspicion, often receiving anonymous threatening messages and phone calls, in addition to fearing that their children may be radicalized, for hearing all the time that they don’t belong here.
Mennonites should know what it means to be targets of suspicion, hostility and rejection, even to be confused for terrorists claiming the same name. That’s what pushed Mennonites to emigrate to the U.S. from France and Ukraine over the last two hundred years. That has also informed some gracious and helpful responses from Mennonite leaders toward our Muslim neighbors, which I recommend for our reading,
I also speak to this climate of fear as a Christian who has Muslim friends, who has studied Islam, and (an English translation of) the Quran, who, with my wife, Becky, has lived with and among Muslims, and who, in Africa, was given a Muslim name (Moussa, Arabic for Moses). I have helped three Muslims find homes in America. I would do it again, given the individuals and the circumstances. They are dear friends.
I also speak as a Christian pastor, evangelist and missionary, who un-apologetically offers my Muslim friends Jesus, with the assurance of eternal life that He gives. But my love for them is in no way dependent on whether or not they agree with and accept Jesus as I understand him (they embrace him as a prophet, but little more). If they wish that I would convert to Islam, I take that as a compliment.
While I am not about to convert, I actually find some aspects of Islamic faith and culture challenging and inspiring to me. The reverent sense of God’s awesome holiness, majesty and sovereignty, sprinkled into their speech in phrases as “Insha’lla” (God willing) and “Bisimulla” (In the name of God), challenges the ways in which my American mindset tends to treat God as just a cheerleader and chaplain for my projects of self-indulgence and self-definition. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan makes me wonder why I fast so few meals. The five daily prayers challenge my bouts of prayerlessness. My contacts with Islam and with Muslims have often pushed me to be a better Christian.
Whenever friends and family would come to visit us in Minneapolis and wanted to go to the mall, we took them. But not to The Mall of America. That was too expensive, over-stimulating and sexualized. Instead, we went a few blocks north to a Somali Mall where there were shops and restaurants, and a mosque upstairs. When I would stop in for an espresso (the best and cheapest, and they heated the cream for free without charging me for a latte), I was usually the only non-Muslim there. Yet I never felt in danger. They seemed genuinely happy to have a pale-skinned native Midwesterner visiting and shopping. Whenever the matter of faith and church came up in conversation, more often than not, Somalis seemed glad to talk with “a white guy” who believed in God, a God who speaks through prophets, someone from among “the people of the book,” and who tries to live by the book. Mainstream American culture strikes them as hostile to God and the fear of God.
My experience of dialog with Muslim is that we can only get so far talking about our differences in major doctrines, such as the Incarnation and deity of Christ, the Trinity and the believer’s assurance of salvation, all of which are of supreme importance to me, but which are considered heretical to Islam. Everyone just gets defensive and digs deeper into entrenched theological positions. But you can have wonderful heart-to-heart spiritual conversations with Muslims about things we share in common, like the difficulties of maintaining belief and spiritual disciplines in a secularizing society, the nuts and bolts of our personal and family religious traditions and practices, or the sacrifices that our faith has required of us, and the difference it makes in our lives. Like us, they also wish to talk about their families, their children, their jobs, their health, their favorite sports teams….
…and their fears. I once asked a Muslim neighbor if he and his family had traveled outside the inner city to see beautiful parts of the countryside, and he replied, “Where can we go that we would be safe?” As an East African immigrant whose wife and daughter wear hijabs and speak with foreign accents, he worried that someone would take him for a Muslim terrorist. Ironically, it was the fear of Islamic terrorism that drove him and his family here.
Let us not forget that the majority of victims to Islamic terrorism worldwide are Muslim. In Paris and San Bernadino, (mostly, but not only) non-Muslims experienced some of the blow-back from a civil war within the Umma, the worldwide house of Islam. There has long been a division between the two main branches of Islam, the majority Sunni Muslims, and the smaller, yet sizable house of Shiite Islam in Iran and parts of Iraq, Syria and Yemen. That difference has again erupted into war, with ISIS persecuting Shiite Muslims as badly as it does Christians. Within the majority Sunni Islam is also a civil war between a powerful, volatile, aggressive and media-savvy jihadist minority, which wants to renew the Islamic Empire and the wars of expansion of the 7th Century AD, and the majority who simply wish to live and raise families peacefully as Muslims in whatever kind of society they live. It is a contest between a vision of Islam as a one-size-fits-all totalitarian state with a perpetual military campaign, and Islam as a timeless but adaptable personal and family faith. The minority side has reckless zeal, money and weapons, but no safeguards against endless internal dissension and self-destruction (ISIS and Al Shabab, of Somalia, have recently declared war on each other). The majority has fourteen centuries of tradition and history to draw on for governance and business, and a more sustainable, future.
While politicians debate whether or not Muslims should be allowed to enter the country, or whether the tiny percentage of U.S. residents who are Muslim represent a threat to democracy, our Muslim neighbors are here, either because they were born here, or because they came seeking the same things we seek: education, a livelihood, and security. Like us, they also want friends. There are enough disagreements among Christians who still get along with each other, and among Muslims who still get along with each other, that the differences between Christianity and Islam should not keep Muslims and Christians from being friends. If Christians are looking for neighbors who will help tutor at their children’s schools, serve on the PTA, or join neighborhood watches, we do well to invite our Muslim friends and neighbors, because their faith tells them also to care about the community, and typically they do. One’s sphere of neighborly responsibility goes out to 40 houses in any direction, according to Islamic jurisprudence.
There’s already a lot of bad history between Christians and Muslims, for which both sides bear responsibility. I cringe at how we are adding to that history now. This is the time for Christians to stand up and stand by their Muslim neighbors, as friends. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that they are friendly, and just want friends. Besides, once a religious group is targeted and loses their freedom and security, where will it stop? Their freedom and security are ours as well.
We in America are still blessed with the chance to get it right, where so many other societies have failed. Simple things go a long way to convey friendship to our Muslim neighbors, like asking about their children, or sending New Year’s greetings (according to the Western and Islamic calendars). Even sending over Christmas cookies may be received as an honor by many, because religious feasts are times to share food. Do that and be prepared for them to reciprocate on their holidays, such as the last day of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid Al Fitr, and graciously accept the treats they send. Get to know the Islamic calendar, and text or email, or better, call or visit them, to say, “Eid Mubarak” (A Blessed Feast to you) on the last day of Ramadan. Check out our church library, or the public library, for resources with which to educate yourself on Islam, so as to understand the differences as well as the similarities with the Christian faith. One of the best and most readable is Teatime in Mogadishu, by Ahmed Haile. We are called to reflect Jesus to the world, and such things, to me, look and sound the most Christ-like. And they are ways that Christians can share their faith, for “faith expresses itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).” And “perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18).”