By Roy Oksnevad
I believe that there are completely two different agendas between the Muslim community and the Christian community precipitated by current events. The current event is the global war often identified as the War on Terrorism (Western politicians), Political Islam (conservative identification), or the Islamists Agenda (academic community), or the Islamic Revolution (Iranian term) and the military reach of Shia Islam. What the world is witnessing seems to be radicalization of moderate Muslims, with groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Muslim Brotherhood (Salafi Islam), al-Qaeda, and other jihadi groups. Many of these groups work with impunity, and the world justice system seems stymied in their attempts to bring perpetrators to justice. The international press has been drawn into this murky world through the high profile attacks on airlines, resorts, and crowded venues. The West is no longer insulated from the brutal reach of these jihadi groups who have operated in the shadows for far too long within the isolated Islamic countries. These jihadi groups used to operate in mostly in Muslim countries, out of view of the general Muslim public. What has changed is the boldness and savagery on a scale that even shocks Muslim majority countries. The world has witnessed the failed nation states as they experiment with democracy from the hopeful Arab Spring of 2010-2011, which has ushered in what is now called the Arab Winter (see http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-andafrica/21685503-five-years-after-wave-uprisings-arab-world-worse-ever).
The threat of Islamic attacks is no longer relegated to secret conversations on national security; instead the world has daily reminders of security risks when traveling by air or attending any mass sporting, cultural events, or the soon-to-be-held Summer Olympics. Islamic jihad has taken place on American soil (see http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/attacks/american-attacks.aspx). More recently, the flood of refugees or asylum seekers have poured out of Iraq and Syria into Europe. A false rumor implied that several of the Paris attackers had embedded themselves with the refugees, which then sparked the debate in the USA on whether we should allow Syrian refugees into our country. Sadly, from presidential candidates to religious leaders, there are now calls to put a moratorium on refugees entering the USA.
The Christian community in the post 9-11 West is not exempt from a growing malaise and fear of a Muslim agenda. With little or no interaction with Muslims to temper their fears, many in the church perceive Muslims through the ever-growing destabilization in the Muslim world and growing acts of terror in the West. Instead of letting the Scriptures inform the way Christians should respond to Muslims, fear of the unknown trumps what they know to be true. Recently a church asked me to come and speak in their Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School) on the following topics:
1. What is happening in the Muslim world?
2. Does the US have to be worried about being overwhelmed?
3. Do Christians have to worry?
4. Is there any reason to be especially careful about allowing Muslims into the US?
The current war on radical Islam is acutely felt on the Muslim side as well. A conversation I just had with a Lebanese woman was that this sectarian violence that is played out in the Muslim world is foreign to her experience growing up in Lebanon. She insisted that when she grew up no one asked if you were Shia or Sunni or Christian. They played and went to school together. Now she, like so many other Muslims, is stunned at the turn of recent events in their homelands. They watch with horror as the violence is played out before them on nightly newscasts. The more religious Muslims are shocked, for to them Islam is to be peace and bring about peace. They believe a utopian version of Islam, which centers upon the good Muhammad brought to the world. You can hear a Friday sermon (khutbahs) preaching that Muslims are killing Muslims and this must stop!
The stance Muslims in the West is taking is two-fold. First, they recognize that they have a massive public relations fiasco that needs to be corrected. They do this by distancing themselves from the “violent” Muslims who perpetrate the atrocities, claiming that they and their cause have nothing to do with Islam. The message that Islam means peace worked for some time but now this mantra seems to have fallen on deaf ears as the scale of destruction in the name of Islam continues to rise unabated. The second response takes on a tone of victimization. Some mosques are recipients of hate speech from a frustrated public, and ordinary Muslims are accosted in public and at school. On the other side, mosques receive hate speech from their own people if they tend to be viewed as too moderate. Islamophobia is believed to be responsible for this hatred directed against them. I even heard Islamophobia used to explain why some of their children are seeking to join groups like ISIS. Sites like Fear Inc seek to expose the roots of fearmongering https://islamophobianetwork.com/. Islamic conventions like ISNA (see http://www.isna.net/52nd-annual-convention-webcast.html) and public talks in mosques are using this phrase almost as a bullying tool to silence the hate directed toward them.
In response to the growing Islamophobia perceived by the Muslim community, Muslims are making a concerted effort to change their image. For example, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) (http://www.ciogc.org/) is using interfaith dialogue by launching a yearlong “Solidarity with Muslims” Campaign. They expect to attract 500 people of diverse faiths. They are reaching out to groups such as the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, Protestants for the Common Good, Jews, and Protestants such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.
In light of these two agendas to this reality, how should we as Christians respond? First, we need to help the Church better understand their new Muslim neighbors. Seasoned Christian workers who understand and witness to Muslims are needed to help remind the Christian community of our mandate to witness, even to our enemies. It is impossible for the few workers to be in every church, so a curriculum on witnessing to Muslims will expand our reach. Journey to Jesus: Developing Christ-Centered Friendships with Muslims was produced by COMMA and is an excellent six-session resource. There are other equally as great curricula out there. Just find one and use it. Second, we can reach out to Muslims through interfaith dialogue. Muslims, who do not understand the difference between liberal Christians, cultural Christians, and true Christians, all too often invite liberal Christians to the interfaith table. Third, we need to pray with Muslims who are recipients of hate speech and show them the love of Christ that compels us. Fourth, we can distribute The Life of Jesus the Messiah DVD produced by Cru so they can hear and see what true Christians believe. We have much to do and now we have an open door that no one can shut.