(Photo: REUTERS / Youssef Boudlal)
Carl Medearis is a writer equally at home in East and West. Currently residing in Denver, Colo., he also spent 12 years in Beirut, Lebanon. These experiences have made the scribe a specialist on Christian-Muslim relations and a rare voice linking Americans with the Arab world.
Medearis' work on both sides of the Atlantic produced 2008's Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships. It quickly gained popularity as an important guide for interfaith interaction, and has since been turned into a video seminar series for churches and missionaries that was released in September.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Medearis maintains that peace between Christians and Muslims remains vital as the number following each faith closes. With 9/11's legacy still looming large a decade later, he argues that Christians and Muslims must cooperate to keep the world safe.
CP: You and your family lived in Beirut, Lebanon, for 12 years. What was the most important thing you learned about Muslims and their relationship with Christians during that experience?
Medearis: I would say that Muslims are at least as nice to us as we are capable of being to them. It was awesome living there. We want to go back.
There's a hospitality and family-oriented culture in the Middle East. It's like the Midwest. Lebanese people are fun, vibrant and full of life. Many people there have conservative family values. They believe marriage is ordained by God between a man and a woman. They are pro-life. They don't send their parents to nursing homes.
CP: Over a decade has passed since 9/11. How has the relationship between Muslims and Christians changed since then?
Medearis: In America, things are tenser than they used to be. Christians are more skeptical and suspicious of Muslims. Muslims thus feel bad about that skepticism, which causes them to pull back into themselves and their communities. That causes us to accuse them of not integrating. It's a vicious cycle.
CP: Much of your writing and lecturing concerns incorrect assumptions Westerners have of Muslims. Does the media help perpetuate these misunderstandings?
Medearis: Of course the media perpetuates misunderstandings about Muslims. They also perpetuate misunderstandings about everything else.
The truth is that the media reflects the culture. We already think Muslims are scary, suspicious, and terrorists lurking around the corner. The media didn't create that. The real issue is that we already think that.
CP: The Arab Spring movement has been happening all over the Middle East for over a year. On Halloween, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called the grassroots uprising an 'Anti-Christian Spring.' How do you feel about that statement?
Medearis: Newt Gingrich doesn't know what he's talking about. The Arab Spring is probably a misnomer. By definition, if you say “Arab Spring” it makes you feel warm, wonderful thoughts about the Arab world. Could the movement in Egypt, for example, be anti-Christian? Sure, but that's their democracy.
It took America 200 years from the founding of our supposed democracy until minorities and women could vote. In other words, it took a long time. Let's give the Arab world grace.
To address Gingrich's point, I'd say the Arab world is Muslim – 95 percent Muslim – so the fact Muslims would take over Muslim countries isn't very surprising. The groups that people are afraid of such as Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah may be anti-American politics, but they aren't anti-Christian.
CP: America has sent troops to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya since 9/11 happened. How do you feel about this aspect of American foreign policy?
Medearis: I think it is disastrous.
From a pro-American political perspective, it’s 50-50. We took the fight to terrorism there but we also may have created more terrorists. You can fairly argue either side.
From a Christian perspective, it's made our job of helping Muslims know Jesus more personally more difficult. I now have to explain to any Muslim I talk to why “Christian America” invaded their country during our first half-hour of discussion.
CP: What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have towards Muslims?
Medearis: The biggest misconception is that they are terrorists. Ninety-nine percent of all Muslims are the nicest people you could ever meet. I challenge Christians in America to befriend Muslims. It helps show them how silly these thoughts are. I combat misconceptions through knowledge.
CP: If extremist interpretations of Islam are the exception rather than the general rule of Islam, how have they gained such visibility and traction among Muslims?
Medearis: This is where the phrase “if it bleeds it leads” makes sense.
There are definitely some crazy Muslims blowing stuff up. There's no excuse for that. We constantly see the bad Muslims doing bad stuff on TV. You have to be mature enough to know that it's for sure the minority.
CP: Say someone is interested in learning about Islam firsthand. Where should they start? In the Quran?
Medearis: The Quran is actually fairly short. I recommend the Oxford Press edition as it's the best English edition. Just start at the beginning and just read it. If nothing else, you're gaining insight into the lives of 1.6 billion people.
CP: How do you think Jesus would feel about Islam if he could see it today?
Medearis: It's important to remember Jesus spent most of his time with outsiders and sinners. He was hard on his own religious community. He was not hard on the other religious communities around him. You never see him, for example, calling the Samaritans to task.
I think he would thus treat Muslims like he treated Samaritans. He would love, honor and spend time with them.
CP: What do you hope happens between Christians and Muslims in the future?
Medearis: I think Christians and Muslims should learn to dialogue peacefully. We as people who follow Jesus do have something to offer them. We can give them a grace-filled offering that doesn't rebuke them for all their different points of theology. We need to start with points of commonality, build bridges from walls and go from there.
I have a lot of hope. The Muslim world is extremely open to the way of Jesus, but not to all things of Western Christendom. A graceful approach is differentiating the two.
As we have negative stereotypes of Muslims, they have negative stereotypes of us. If you ask the typical Muslim about Christians, they may think we sleep around, eat too much pork, drink too much alcohol and have no honor for our parents. They see all the ills of American society as Christian society's ills. It's much like what we do to them. Prejudice and misunderstandings go both ways, and they're probably equally damaging.