It seems every day or two I hear another Christian commentator speak of how Christianity in general, and American Christianity in particular is, or at least will soon be, “at war with Islam.” They point to the all-too-frequent attacks on the West by Muslim extremists, and the rhetoric of groups like Al-Quaeda and Daesh (1) as evidence. Sometimes, they also appeal to the terrible treatment Christians encounter in certain Muslim-majority countries. Islam, they say, is out to conquer the world — especially the Christian west — and turn it into a giant Muslim caliphate with Sharia as the only law.
It’s not as though there’s nothing scary going on in the world to fuel these fears. Christians — or at least converts to Christianity — tend not to fare so well in Saudi Arabia where conversion is illegal. Nigerian Muslim groups have a pretty brutal record toward Christian groups in that country, although to be fair, the violence tends to go both ways. And it is beyond dispute that spokesmen for Daesh have openly called for holy war against the American and Russian “crusaders” (funny … nobody else seems to think the U.S. and Russia are united on much of anything, but I digress).
Plenty of self-styled experts on Islam have filled the web with treatises on how Islam is an inherently violent religion. An oft-repeated, but also -refuted claim is that there are over 109 distinct verses in the Qur’an that encourage or command violence by Muslims against non-Muslims. Putatively Christian commentators loudly demand that Muslims denounce terrorist attacks, and then when a Muslim does denounce them, s/he is immediately dismissed as practicing taqiyya (2) and not to be trusted. Similarly, when a Muslim publicly claims that s/he wishes to live in peace with Christians, the commentators either accuse that Muslim (once again) of taqiyya, or insist that s/he can’t be a real Muslim, since “real Muslims are commanded to kill non-Muslims.” While these Christian apologists frequently point out that Christianity teaches peace — as opposed to Islam which, they insist, does not — quite quickly and completely without irony, they soon pivot to the argument that we Christians need to defend ourselves against the coming (or present) Muslim attacks. As the saying goes, we’d better fight them “over there” before we have to fight them “here.” At its extreme, this attitude feeds the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee paranoia currently sweeping the U.S.
I’ve previously written about the inappropriateness of outsiders to any faith presuming to interpret that faith’s texts and teachings. As the comments on that section (to say nothing of the conservative blogosphere) demonstrate, there are an awful lot of Christians who are convinced that peace with Muslims is impossible, precisely because they “know” that the Qur’an itself commands otherwise. I find that position tragic and foolish. When anyone who has been, or has been assumed to be an enemy, extends a hand of friendship and conciliation, I can understand caution. There are, after all, over 1,400 years of bloody history between Christians and Muslims. But out-and-out rejection of a peaceful overture is just nonsensical. Sure, there are violent Muslims. I admit it, and so do the friendly Muslims I’ve known. But I don’t paint my Muslim neighbor with the colors of Daesh, any more than I want him to paint me with the colors of Westboro Baptist Church.
It seems to me that there are three important points that need to be considered in all this bellicose rhetoric. First, Islam isn’t a single, monolithic thing, either that has declared war on “us” (whoever “we” are), or upon which war can be declared. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Muslim-majority countries include most of North Africa, the Middle East, south-west Asia, and Indonesia. These places are not at all like each other, culturally or politically. While there is indeed some support for extremism in a variety of these countries, it represents a vanishingly small proportion of the overall population. My own most recent experience in a Muslim majority country was Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where I repeatedly met Muslims who enthusiastically celebrated the friendly relations they have with their “Christian brothers” (their term, not mine) in that country … and I met Christians who backed up the same attitude. There absolutely are Muslims who have declared war on the West, but they do not speak for all, or even most, Muslims. Islam has not declared war on anybody … and in fact, many Muslim scholars in the very center of Islam have publicly reached out in peace.
Second, whatever war there may be, wars on religions have a notoriously dismal record in history. Nero and Diocletian tried to wipe out Christianity. They failed. The crusaders tried to drive Muslim rulers out of “the Holy Land.” They failed. Israel and Palestine have been trying to drive each other out for over seventy years. They keep failing. The Ayatollah tried to make an Islamic republic out of Iran, and it’s got more Christians today than before the revolution, according to one researcher. The Chinese government tried to wipe out Falun Gong. They’ve failed. Over and over again, attempts to suppress a religious group through violence have demonstrated that violence just can’t kill a faith. So whether it’s Islam declaring war on Christianity, or the other way around, it’s a pretty good bet that while that war could cause a great deal of terrible suffering, it’s ultimately unwinnable.
But third and most importantly, the way to prevent or end a war is to make peace. Not just because it’s the Christian thing to do (although it is), but because it’s the thing that works. So when a Muslim tries to befriend a Christian, the appropriate and sensible response is quite simple: be friendly! When Muslims in America (or Western Europe) say that they want to live in peace with the rest of us, we should take them at their word and reach out to them in peace. The dumbest possible thing is to reject them because we “know” they can’t be serious. It really isn’t complicated.
Of course, there is a chance making peace won’t “work” in the pragmatic sense. As I’ve said before, living the way of Jesus in the face of violence and terrorism may be deadly. The call of Christ is to be ready to die for (NOT kill for) what’s right. But I doubt this is one of those circumstances where the right thing is even all that dangerous. Most people in the world just want to live in peace. Pundits’ pronouncements notwithstanding, being Muslim doesn’t change that.
(1) I have committed from here on to use the term “Daesh” to describe what is in other places known as “ISIS” or “ISIL” in respect of those Muslims around the world who insist that this terrorist group is neither legitimately Islamic nor legitimately a state. For more on the choice of name, see this editorial in the Boston Globe.
(2) Taqiyya is a real Muslim concept. According to this Shi’a Muslim site (and I have had other Muslims explain it to me in similar terms), it is a specific religious permission to falsely speak words denying one’s faith for one’s own safety…that is, when life or property might be threatened by someone who opposes Islam. It is categorically not the endorsement of falsehood that many opponents of Islam claim.