Thursday, 21 August 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Muslims

Source: Photopin/Ted Swedenburg

There’s something I’ve noticed about the way we evangelicals talk about Muslims.

We’re terrible at it.

Okay this is the point where I state the obvious and point out that we’re not a monolithic entity of talking-terribly-about-Muslims-ness. Often it’s the most extreme voices shouting the loudest. But it’s enough to make me cringe when the topic is brought up in Christian circles.

And this bothers me. It bothers me that when we talk about the subject of Muslims there will usually be that one person who characterises them all as jihadists. It bothers me that a viral video posing as a VW ad defines suicide bombing as “Muslim culture” despite the fact that suicide bombing is an incredibly controversial topic amongst Muslims with the majority condemning it. It bothers me that the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab/Turkish headscarf, is often branded by those in the Western world as “a terrorist scarf”. I’m tired of hearing that we can’t allow more Muslims into Western countries because they’ll go all Sharia law on us and slit our throats as soon as we let them in.[1] 

Now I know what some people will already be thinking. I’m some namby-pamby political correctness police. I’m not.[2] Instead I want to put forth a case arguing from a logical, biblical, and practical viewpoint as to why we need to learn to talk better about Muslims.
There seems to be this Cold War-esque fear of Muslims in our society, which in some ways is understandable as to how we reached it. Most of the wars the Western world is involved in at the moment are with Middle Eastern countries. Arabs are the latest stock characters to stand as generic terrorists in action movies; most “modern warfare” games have you running through Unspecifiedastan shooting hordes of generic Arabs (one of the reasons I enjoyed Spec Ops: The Line so much was for its reversal of this trope).[3] And here’s the thing: these stereotypes are pretty harmful. Stereotypes, even positive ones, affect our expectations of other people in subtle ways. And although I suspect we know that it’s mostly the extremists that are to blame, the statistics show that we tend to paint Muslims with a pretty broad brush. The big problem here is that with the boom of globalisation Muslims are a growing part of our communities with which we interact with in our daily lives. And it’s hard to show genuine love to people when you constantly see people as belief systems instead of people, especially when you focus on the most extreme excesses of that belief system.[4]    

We can also turn to the Bible for examples of how we are to speak to and about Muslims as Christians. Scholar of Muslim-Christian studies Dr Ida Glaser has identified three stories in the Bible that we can draw wisdom from.[5]

The first is Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10). Peter is called to go to the house of Cornelius the centurion, a God-worshiping Gentile. However, Peter’s understanding of holiness and cultural boundaries make him resistant to meet with a Gentile. It is only when God convicts Peter that He shows no favouritism that Peter is willing to evangelise Cornelius.

The second is Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4). The Samaritans were an off-shoot of Judaism but they had many conflicts with the Jewish people theologically, resulting in it being culturally taboo for the two groups to interact with each other. But Jesus crosses these boundaries of prejudice to bring salvation to an outcast.

The third is in the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In this story the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples who are struggling to grasp the recent events. Jesus responds by opening the scriptures and showing how what happened to him was a fulfilment of scripture. This case is especially relevant as according to one former Muslim “It is important for the Muslim to see Christianity not as a religion but as a living, new relationship with God.”[6] There has to be a sense in which Christianity is shown as being a continuation to what they already know.           

There is also the important Biblical concept of taming the tongue that needs to be taken into consideration (James 3:3-12).[7] James describes the tongue as a restless evil, full of poison, used to both praise God and curse humans. James continues to say that this is not befitting of Christ’s followers because all humans are created in the likeness of God. New Testament scholar David P. Nystrom writes “Failure to recognise that each of us is created in God’s image will eventually allow us to oppress and enslave one another. This is, in fact, a cardinal reason why the worship of foreign gods was outlawed by God, for worship of other gods meant not only the rejection of God, but also the repudiation of his social and ethical standards.”[8] Yes we are to decry the actions of ISIS and Boko Haram for they represent atrocious human rights violations, but in our thirst for justice we should not fall into dehumanizing a whole group of people.  

Let’s take a moment to talk about something that annoys many Christians (me included): people taking Bible verses (e.g. anything out of Leviticus) drastically out of context to argue against Christianity. You know the feeling you get as someone smugly pulls a verse out of context and all you can do is claw at your face while you reply in a voice that sounds like absolute death “that’s not what that scripture means”.[9] The point is that it sucks when people cherry pick verses of scripture to use against us instead of having an honest dialogue.   

So why do we do the same to Muslims?

Look I’m not saying that you give the Qur’an your stamp of approval, but at least try to make an honest effort to understand what it says. Instead of accusing a Muslim of being a bad Muslim for not following through on a passage that seemingly advocates for your murder, ask them what it means. Ask them how they interpret it for their daily faith. And this is how you take the first step to healthy dialogue with people of other beliefs: when you are willing to dialogue with them and learn from them instead of arguing past them. You will have disagreements and that’s fine; part of having a healthy dialogue is learning to disagree in ways that makes the other person feel respected. And here’s the thing about healthy dialogue with Muslims: most literature I’ve read on witnessing to Muslims emphasises that in the end your character as a Christian is often the most effective witness for Christ.    

Finally let’s look at what I think is the most powerful reason for learning to talk better about Muslims: the recent testimony of an Iraqi TV host:

The Christians have done nothing wrong. They haven't hurt a soul. On the contrary, they are peaceful people, who love all sects. They are honourable people, with high moral values. They always maintain their sense of justice.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all known for being like that?

[1] Which has always struck me as an odd thing to say considering that the majority of Muslim countries don’t follow complete Sharia law.
[2] And not just because I think the term “political correctness” is extremely problematic.
[3] In all fairness, the latest addition to the Call of Duty series, COD: Ghosts, has moved away from using Arabs as terrorists in an effort to appear less xenophobic. Instead you play a squad of well-armed burly white men who are the last line of defence against a massive invasion of South Americans trying to cross the border into the USA. Oh wait.
[4] Blogger Nerdeen Kiswani recounts this experience: “On my campus, a middle-aged male professor approached me, along with four other Palestinian women wearing the Keffiyeh, and said “don’t shoot me.” We are typically expecting this sort of language when attending peaceful rallies or protests, yet as Palestinians we also face this in our learning environment, the one place we mistakenly thought we were supposed to be safe.”
[5] Ida Glaser, The Bible and Other Faiths: What Does the Lord Require of Us? (Carlisle, Cumbria: Global Christian Library, 2012), 207-11.
[6] Dean C. Halverson, The Illustrated Guide to World Religions (Bloomington, Minn.: Bethany House, 2003), 109.
[7] This sentiment is also expressed by Jesus in Matthew 15: 16-20 when he says that it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean, but what comes out of it.
[8] David P. Nystrom, James: The Niv Application Commentary, The Niv Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©1997), 181.
[9] It’s just me that does this? Maybe I’m overly-dramatic.

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