Islam is more than mere religion in the recently secularized Western sense-i.e., private beliefs that are largely irrelevant to public life. In contrast, Islam is an all-encompassing socio-political-religious ideology in which more radicalized Muslims emphasize jihad and the more troubling social/justice positions that to them are consistent with a faithful rendering of the Koran. When taken to these extremes, this interpretation of Islam promotes violence and conquest as legitimate means of faithful expression. Under this rendering, jihad is to Islam what evangelism is to Christianity.
Conversely, there are those within the Islamic faith who oppose what they say is a perverted interpretation of the Koran. Jennifer Bryson, a Christian scholar and director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute, rightly points out, “Among Muslims there are emerging efforts … to engage Islamist fanatics …, especially young Muslims, at risk of radicalization. Examples include the Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim counter-radicalization think-tank in the U.K., and the video Believers Beware: Injustice Cannot Defeat Injustice, released this summer by the Muslim Public Affairs Council based in Washington, DC, featuring Muslim leaders speaking Muslim-to-Muslim against religious fanaticism” (Jennifer S. Bryson, The Washington Post, “Christians Must Reject ‘Burn a Quran Day,’” August 27, 2010). Personally, I hope these efforts gain momentum.
There is great debate over whose interpretation is accurate and frankly it isn’t helpful when non-Muslims assert “what is true” about Islam without listening to moderate Muslims. This would be akin to accepting Richard Dawkins’s interpretation of the Bible when he writes:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, [Mariner, 2006]).
Given the fact that I am not an Islamic theologian, I am not to going to presume to say which interpretation of Islam is correct. What I can do is examine the most common social and cultural effects of the Islamic worldview. Sadly, within modern Islam there seems to be scarce contribution to real human flourishing. In fact, Islamic dominated societies suffer exceptionally high rates of illiteracy and poverty, inadequate healthcare systems, and barbaric forms of justice without the right to due process. Modern Islamic societies-generally speaking-do not foster equality, plurality of ideas, or encourage human creativity in business, technology or the arts; quite the opposite. In short, Islamic societies appear to hinder the creative, vocational, and liberal expression of human beings made in the image of God.
Regardless of the debate over which is the accurate representation of Islam, the doctrine of jihad-whether faithful to the Koran or not-is the undeniable motivation for those who have declared war on the West and it is the height of naïveté to presume otherwise. As such, radicalized Islam, which seems to be the dominant stream within modern Islam, is a real threat to peace and the rights of all people to live free from fear and oppression. Thus Islamist fanaticism is a legitimate interest of the state. As such, I do support the war on terror, not because I am Islamophobic but because I oppose the indiscriminate violence and disruption of peace that terrorism causes-and moderate Muslims should as well.
Furthermore, I believe the Bible to be true, which tells me that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation with God (see John 14:6). Islam rejects Jesus, offering works as the way to reconciliation with God. Thus Islam rejects the true salvation offered to men. This not only serves to maintain the eternal alienation of Muslims from God but also denies them the abundant life now, a life in which the peace of God (shalom) is restored through Christ Jesus. As Christians, this is our preeminent concern.
Islam is the ideology. It varies in its interpretation and application, but it must always remain distinct from the people. Muslims are the people, people made in the image of God, people for whom Christ died and with whom we should seek peace and reconciliation. This will require that we seek the grace to love Muslims and display the un-earthly love of Christ. I confess this is sometimes difficult. As I read this past week about the latest wave of insurgent attacks in Iraq, I was thinking, “What is wrong with these people?!” We have spent billions of dollars and precious American lives liberating Iraq and securing some measure of peace and yet they seem utterly incapable of civilized conduct! It is frustrating, to be sure, and very often secures the false perception that Muslims are the enemy.
It is here that I am challenged to be a Christian first and an American second. In essence, it means that the priority of the church-personally and corporately-is to seek first his kingdom of peace and righteousness, shalom. This requires an act of faith, in which I first confront my frequent inability to love those who are simply different (much less “my enemy”) and seek God’s grace to do so, followed by actually acting with love toward Muslims. It does no good to say “I love my enemy” but never put one’s faith to the test on this point. I am incapable of this on my own but I trust that his grace is sufficient; the call upon us as Christians is to follow Christ, knowing that when we are obedient, he will give the grace necessary to act faithfully. This is where being Christian transcends mere belief about Jesus into actual faith that obeys Jesus.
Furthermore, all Muslims aren’t terrorists. Most just want live their lives in peace without fear. As a U.S. Marine, my son has conducted joint training with Afghan Muslims. He confessed to being surprised by the kindness and gratitude of these good people who are desperate for peace and deeply grateful for America’s help. In short, once he actually met a Muslim-a real person bearing the imago Dei, with common hopes and dreams-he had compassion for them. It may surprise us to learn that there are Muslims who are loving, kind, and generous precisely because they are trying to be faithful Muslims.
Can you imagine what it might be like for the many Muslims now living in America who simply want to live in peace-strangers in a strange land, a land that appears increasingly hostile to them and their religion because we don’t separate the ideology from the individual? (If we applied this logic broadly, we should be far more concerned with atheists, since the greatest atrocities of the last two millennia were committed by regimes committed to atheistic ideologies.)
How might Muslims living among us respond to Christians who take the time to get to know them, welcome them, love them, and extend friendship? I know former Muslims who say until they came to this country, they had never heard the gospel. This was simply not permitted in their homeland. It was here-in the light of freedom-that they first encountered the truth. However, their conversion to faith in Jesus Christ was not the result of an intellectual examination of the facts. No, their conversion began with the love of a Christian.