Saturday, November 14, 2015

As a Christian, what should I think about Islam and Terrorism?

Q: Hi! I've seen people lately talking about how Islam isn't a religion of peace. That they have read the texts themselves and that they call for war and to convert everyone to Islam. My thoughts are that you can twist anything to read into anything any way you want to including obviously the Bible. While I believe Islam is a peaceful religion, how do you respond to that? Is it just like someone reading the Bible and saying I've read the Bible and it clearly states slavery is okay or whatever? (When you get a chance to respond. No rush.)

A: This is such a very big and important subject, and involves how the world's two largest religious traditions relate to each other. There isn't just one monolithic kind of Islam, just like there isn't one monolithic Christianity. There are many versions of each, and all of those versions are shaped by culture and historical context.

I remember taking a course in Islam at Luther Seminary, and our professor, Charles Amjad-Ali, a convert from Islam to Christianity, spent the first two months re-teaching us Christianity rather than anything specific about Islam. That was wise. Perhaps the first step in understanding another religious tradition is to allow ourselves to inquire into our own religion before assuming too much about theirs. 

In fact, a great first step, always, is to ask the same question of your own tradition you are applying to the religion of others. 

So, is Christianity a religion of peace? Looked at in historical perspective, Christianity encompasses quite a bit that is violent. Christians aspire to be peaceful, and they worship the Prince of Peace, but they don't always live that peace out. Here are examples of violent movements that claimed to be Christian: the Crusades, apartheid, race based chattel slavery in the United States, World War I (on both sides), the Troubles of Northern Ireland. I could go on, ad nauseum.

Does Christianity aim for worldwide forced conversion? At many stages of history, the answer would be a resounding yes. End of the Roman Empire. Quite a stretch in the Medieval period. The Spanish Inquisition. Forced conversion of indigenous people the world over. Some Muslims (an obvious minority of them in today's world, even if they grab the news through politically motivated terrorist activity) seem to be aiming for this also. But Quranic law is actually against such practices (2:256). Of course, a scholar of the Koran will likely correct me, and rightly so, and tell me their Scriptures are more complex than this. I need to listen to those who know their own Scriptures better than I do.

If I listen to them, this is what they are saying:

ING and its Affiliates nationwide join the global chorus of voices praying for and offering our deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s horrific, ongoing terror attacks in Paris, France.

No belief, cause, or grievance justifies the kind of gratuitous and senseless violence employed by the attackers in Paris. Such inhuman behavior accomplishes nothing and flies in the face of both natural ethics and the commandments of God. We pray that the perpetrators are found and quickly brought to justice. In the face of such tragedy, it is heartening to see people in Paris and around the world responding with acts of love and service, such as Parisians opening their doors to anyone in the city seeking shelter and safety for the night coordinated through social media, and taxi drivers across the city offering rides at no cost.

  • As Muslims, people of all faiths, and leaders across the world swiftly and fully condemn these attacks, we reaffirm the following values and principles that we have previously emphasized
  • We affirm and uphold the sanctity of all human life, the taking of which is among the gravest of all sins. 
  • We affirm the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. 
  • We affirm the right to security in one’s livelihood, profession, and residence. 
  • We believe that God created us with all the diversity of race, religion, language, and belief to get to know one another, not to despise or hate one another. 
  • We believe that Islam is above all a religion of peace and mercy, and that Muslims are obligated to model those traits in their lives and characters and to work for the good of our homeland and society, wherever that might be.
Specifically, if you want to know what Muslims are saying about ISIS, you can read this:

So why do I think some Muslims are engaged in the violent kind of terrorism we have seen in Syria, Kenya, and most recently in Paris? Because they subscribe to a corruption of their own religious tradition frequently called Islamofascism. In other words, it's an ideology that has connections to some violent politico-philosophical categories of the West re-inscribed on certain forms of Islam (in particular, Wahhabism).

Notice how dangerous I've gotten. If you're reading this, you have the impression I know a ton about fascism and Wahhabism. I've suddenly become an expert on the combination of a political and religious movement at considerable historical or cultural remove from my own social location. Isn't it easy to pontificate on things distant from us!

And in the meantime, I've deflected all attention from my own complicity in the political and religious structures that have contributed to the development of tensions between nations, and worldwide geopolitical instability. I'm not scrutinizing my own Christianity at all, or my implicit nationalism. 

We are called to do a better job of turning our suspicion of others around on ourselves. It's better to turn more of our inquiry on our own practices, in the way Todd Green does in his recent post with Sojourners, 3 Reasons Christians Shouldn't Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.

The truth: religions don't exist in the abstract, they have no life apart from the people who constitute them.  “Every religion in the world depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam — your Judaism —your Christianity — your Hinduism — your Buddhism is going to be violent.” (Reza Aslan, via a muslim perspective on terrorism and a response to the paris attacks)

Is Islam a missionary religion, with the goal of bringing more and more people into the faith, and becoming a global faith? It seems it is. But then, Christianity is making a bid for the same position, and currently claims many more adherents. Remember that it is Christianity that includes the Great Commission, "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Imagine how many non-Christians hear that command of Christ. 

If they are at all sympathetic to religions with a missionary impulse, they understand that mission need not be Borg-like, with a culture of forced assimilation. So much depends upon the how of mission. I believe both Christianity and Islam understand this, and simultaneously have more work to do on it, in order to be properly and respectfully missiological.

There is so much more to be said, much of it related to the historical contexts and cultures in which our respective Scriptures were written. No faith can be disembodied from that. There are no ahistorical religions. This is why, when anyone blames religions for being inherently violent, they are on such sketchy ground, because religions of every type are so strangely correlated to violence and war that it is difficult in the extreme to make the shift from correlation to causation. Religions are often used to justify violence, which is of course different from religion causing the violence. In many instances, the religion is a veneer for what violent people and groups wished to do anyway.
Of Gods and Men

I will leave it to experts more knowledgeable in biblical and Quranic studies than I to help us understand the violence described, condoned, or even encouraged in both our respective faiths. It takes quite a bit of intellectual work to engage it. It takes courage, and faith.

In the meantime, I find a few portrayals of how to think about each of our faiths, and their relationship to each other, helpful. My favorite is the film Of Gods and Men. I wish everyone would see it. It illustrates the peace so faithfully expressed by loving and neighborly Christians and Muslims.

Second, here's a letter from the American Church in Paris. It's a good read, and offers a faithful word for all of us who are grieving and worrying. After that, read this, so much this, ( encouragement for all of us trying to maintain the grey zone so that ISIS and all the other violators of every type will not win. Then finally, for a challenging and even more global perspective, read this:


  1. As a Mormon,(Yes, we have the Book of Mormon, but that does not diminish the importance of the Old and New Testaments for the Church) I want to share my Christian perspective. Is there a difference between the influx of Muslims and Latter-Day Saints into European culture? What Latter-Day Saints hold in common with the rest of Christianity is that free agency, or the right to worship God after our own conscience and understanding, is the greatest gift that God has given us. Our Christian doctrine is of the greatest importance. In Christianity, the more devout a person is, the greater the love he or she feels towards their fellow man. In cases where an individual feels a need to show their utmost dedication to their God, he or she engages in proselyting repentance and the word of God to their fellow man. To those who are not interested, the Christian may be an annoyance, but is still harmless as a fly. This is all backed up by Christian doctrine where forgiveness of others is mandatory. It is also clear that war is reserved for situations of self defence (Alma 48:14). The idea of imposing force of belief on others is Satan's plan.
    To an errant Islamic, however, who realizes that they have strayed from God, the doctrines of their faith point show them that to show their utmost dedication to their God, they point their lives towards Jihad. Are all Muslims terrorists? No, but it is a path of a far greater percentage of Muslims because the written texts not only condone it, but celebrate it. It also enslaves their population to suffer honor killings, Sharia Law, subjugation women, and so forth.
    What the non-LDS Christians of the world have in common with Islam is the lack of unified authority. It is true that the Catholic Church is making historic efforts to rebuild a world-wide Catholic Church, but is doing so under the banner of "doctrine is not important ... unity is". And it has been revealed that it would put itself into the position of determining what "fundamentalist" churches would be allowed to continue to exist...or not. This presents a problem for the LDS mindset, of course, since the LDS church has never recognized the authority of the Council of Nicaea to set up a Church in the Saviour's name, and notes this period of time to be the beginning of Dark Ages (2 Nephi 15, Isaiah 29:8, Amos 8:11-12, etc). Where is the concept of free agency in this picture?
    So this talk about a renewed world-wide church brings up those unsettling whisperings about world-wide government and other things that sound an awful lot like the Communist conspiracy that I grew up fearing when I was a young boy in the 60's. Such a plan doesn't put a lot of importance in principles such as national sovereignty and the Constitution of the United States, so it looks a little bit more scary to consider that the current policies of the current leaders of the world demanding a capitulation to the demands of the countless Muslims that are soon to be in the majority in many nations of the West. Yes, that does fit the love and acceptance part, but it also continues to threaten the Christian culture that has been the glue to bind us together throughout modern history and it leaves our children to inherit a world ripe for intolerable conflicts.
    I don't pretend to have the answers to solve these problems, but I do think that the rest of Christianity should acknowledge that the LDS (Mormon) church's focus on getting the faithful to both share their Christian ideals with others as well an encouraging individual preparedness is a good start. Also a good analogy of Benjamin Franklin's, “A penny saved is a penny earned”, should be applied to our Christian culture, in the sense that if we save it, it will be a lot easier to deal with than letting it be destroyed and try to figure out how to revive it.

  2. I think it is not productive to revisit the periods of persecution by Christians centuries ago, because most of this was due to the abuses of the Roman Catholic Papist system, which was more of a political system using religion as a tool of power, and it was unfaithful to the Apostolic church and message of the Gospel. Many centuries later, we are now dealing with a present day Muslim religious theocracy which has never seen a much needed Reformation to become civilized. Women are still oppressed, mutilations of female genitalia takes place, beheadings for blasphemy occurs as it did in earlier centuries, warfare against "infidels" or Jews, Christians, other non-Muslims is preached as we speak in many many mosques across the world. As we speak, Christians are murdered in Muslim societies, girls raped, cities destroyed, books burned, and still.....some learned people in the West think we need to reach out and understand Muslim practices and hopefully talk them into changing into tolerant liberals. It will not happen. Islam has made war against every host country kind enough to reach out and take them in, biting the proverbial hand that feeds them. Christians and Jews do not survive well in any Muslim country because this is the most ruthless and intolerant of religions. Only Marxists are as brutal. In order to survive against evil, one must recognize and name it, and must begin to fight back, lest we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones misery and death.....the price of appeasement and being "nice" to those who would enslave or destroy us.

  3. It's interesting that the first two comments on a blog post inviting self-critique ignore that invitation and all together and instead continue the diatribe against other faiths. It comes across as relentless demagoguery, to be honest, to be so confident in the rightness of one's own religious position, and so unwilling to listen to and learn from the other.

    1. The comments by Clint and Al have missed the point completely. One can find individuals who are Muslims or from other religions who are peaceful and able to assimilate with other cultures. However, bear in mind that Islam, as guided by the Koran, is not simply a religion. It is a theocratic system which incorporates a political, legal, educational and social agenda, and a military component. The word Islam is related to the word submit or submission in translation. The ability to enjoy freedom of religion for non-Muslims in Muslim dominated societies is alien to the Koran, which guides the leaders of Islam in their practices and policies. In even bringing such things up, I accept your criticism. However, I do think being accused of "relentless demagoguery" is over the top. If either of you feel that Islam in particular enjoys parity with peaceful religions than you are each guilty of historical ignorance. Neither one of you would keep your heads for long if you lived in Syria or Iran.

  4. I have worked in my industry for 37 years. At the beginning everyone was just like me, a white male of European descent, and nominally (culturally?) a Christian. Over the years many of my former colleagues left and I gradually made the acquaintance of new colleagues from China, Pakistan, India, Sierra Leone, etc. I learned about their religions, particularly Islam and Hinduism. I learned that these were people of good-will and with varying degrees of fervency in their beliefs. I learned that they are just as human as I am. Just as moral. Just as peace-loving. I am learning this: "Ignorance, prejudice, and many societal ills in our world can begin to change through relationship." @amenabee

  5. Clint, I'm sorry, but your position that the vast majority of Islam is peaceful frankly doesn't matter in this case.

    Yes, Christianity has had its periods of forceful persecution and forceful conversion doesn't actually impact the current situation.

    The Islamic world right now is split into a lot of different camps. Shia, Sunni, Salafist, Wahabbi, and so many more. To point out that several Sunni or Shia leaders denounce terrorism doesn't mean much, because the ones supporting and performing terroristic acts *don't* listen to them. It'd be like a Southern Baptist leader denouncing the Irish Troubles--neither the Catholic nor the Presbyterians would actually listen to either. And to focus on problems that happened literally centuries ago mean almost nothing in the scheme of dealing with today's problems.

    While you reference Quranic Law to state that forcibly converting others to Islam is wrong, there's other direct verses that state forcibly converting to Islam is god-ordained. There is no such law that Christians are to follow. And in the meantime, between 15% and 25% of Muslims worldwide support the beliefs that drive the Islamic Extremists in their actions, though clearly they're not the only ones acting. But 3/20 and 1/4 of Muslims worldwide, out of a 1.3 Billion Muslim group... that provides a ridiculously large group that can provide Jihadist soldiers.

    I am the last person to advocate hate against ay other religions. I'm an immigrant, and see the Syrian refugee Crisis in Europe as an opportunity, not a problem for the nations that are involved in it. There's 10K Syrians that just landed in New Orleans that are going to be distributed among the United States.

    I'm sorry. But yes, the average person wants to be moral and is peace-loving.
    But pretending that there's not a statistically significant problem among Middle Eastern Muslims is burying your head in the sand.

    That isn't to say that Westernized Muslims are potential terroists. I don't think that at all. I have friends that are, I had coworkers on newspapers that were Muslim. But a *Western* Muslim or Middle-Eastern-anti-Terrorist-Muslim's position on terrorism... frankly has no effect on whether terrorism will occur.

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful blog. Just posting here so you can have a comment from a colleague.

  7. I think this blog post is apropos:

    I feel like we see this conversation playing out every time some Muslims carry out an atrocity. Some commenters wish to emphasize the fact that the attackers were Muslim and desire acknowledgement of this from others. Those who worry about tarring all Muslims with the same brush will respond, or even preempt, by pointing out that many Muslims are peaceful and it's not fair to associate non-Daesh Muslims with Daesh. The first group gets to portray themselves as bold truth-tellers: "The attackers were Muslim!" "Well, yes, but they aren't typical of Muslims." "But they were Muslim! And look at all these horrible quotes from the Quran!" "Most religions are capable of violent interpretations." "But look how much violence Muslims commit! I'm not saying all Muslims are violent, but you can't ignore the facts." "OK, the attackers were Muslim. What does that imply?"

    And there's the rub. The second group will have suspected that all along, what the first group wanted to do was frighten their hearers and sow distrust of their Muslim neighbors. And at the end of the argument, once we've all acknowledged that the attackers were Muslim, even if we caveat our statements with Not All Muslims, we'll be tempted to illiberal measures, or at the very least we'll have reinforced the level of suspicion and fear we have toward our Muslim neighbors.

    Daesh wants you to believe that Islam is all about sowing terror and violently subjugating nonbelievers. Why give them what they want?