“The War on Islam” and a Christian response

OliveBranchIt 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.

8 thoughts on ““The War on Islam” and a Christian response”

  1. Duane Miller

    Thanks for mentioning my article on a global census of believers in Christ from a Muslim background, though to be fair it was authored by two people: myself and Patrick Johnstone.

    But if you are interested in how Christianity grew in Iran after the 1979 revolution check out my article on that topic here:



    Duane A. Miller

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Uh … how about “that’s over 1,200 years ago?” Hardly a reasonable counter to “most people…”

      And if you’re gonna dredge up conquests from the past, the English, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgians, Italians, and Greeks also have similar histories of conquest. And the only reason Americans don’t is what we haven’t been here that long, but our European ancestors (all at least nominally “Christians”) conducted conquest to even GET us here. And those are a lot less than a thousand years ago.

      1. Mikel

        Jacques Ellul makes the following comments in The subversion of Christianity: “War is inherent in Islam. It is inscribed in its teachings. It is a fact of its civilization and also a religious fact.; the two cannot be separated….For three centuries Christianity spread by preaching, kindness, morality, and encouragement of the poor. When the empire became Christian war was hardly tolerated by the Christians….no matter what atrocities have been committed by so-called Christian nations war has always been in essential contradiction of the gospel. Christians have always been more or less aware of of this. They have judged war and questioned it. In Islam, on the contrary, war was always just and constituted a sacred duty. The war that was meant to convert infidels was just and legitimate…to spread the faith it is necessary to destroy false religions. This war, then is always a religious war, a holy war… Christians did not invents the holy war, or the slave trade. Their great fault was to imitate Islam.

        1. Dan Martin Post Author

          With due respect to Ellul, he’s wrong on at least three counts.

          First, if he’s going to play the history game in that way, war and slavery are at least as central to the foundation of Judaism (Exodus and Joshua re: war, the Mosaic law re: slavery) as they are to Islam. So to say Islam in any way originated such things in a religious context is to miss a minimum of two to three thousand years of Abrahamic history.

          Second, the statement “When the empire became Christian war was hardly tolerated by the Christians” is frankly ahistoric. Christians quite quickly embraced war in furtherance of the Holy Roman Empire and crusades, about which little to no contemporary objection is available to us.

          Third, his statement that war is inseparable from Islam belies the objective fact that there are real Muslims around the world who are actively working to separate the two. A major point of my original article here is that we should receive peaceful overtures in good faith, as offered in good faith, despite the claims to the contrary by enemies of peace who happen to wear the armbands of all three Abrahamic religions.

          Finally, though, even if everything I just said here is wrong, and Ellul is right … that is, even if Islam is irredeemably violent and bent on the destruction of Christians … Jesus’ prohibition on violence denies the Christian the right to respond in kind. Funny how putative Christians seem to miss that fact.

          1. Mikel

            Hi Dan,
            I am not out to win an argument, but to have a discussion. 🙂

            Going back to my original quote from your article: “Most people just want to live in peace”. It is almost as if you are saying, people are basically good i.e. denying sin/original sin. To quote another Ellul passage, as he is one of my favorite authors :-), this time from Anarchy and Christianity “people are not good … their two great characteristics, no matter what their society or education, are covetousness and the desire for power. We find these traits always and everywhere”. As you point out, we find this in Muslim as well as “Christian” history. So I am not saying that Muslims are worse people than other people.

            I don’t want to go into Judaism, but it does seem to me that the gospel strikes at the heart of covetousness and the desire for power, whereas Islam as a religion legitimates it. I do not know how Muslims will be able to stay Muslims, and recognise the Koran as the infallible word of God (Allah), let alone the hadiths, sunna etc and at the same time reject violence. Their history is soaked in violence, the tradition is well established, and to this day if you wish to leave the faith you are threatened with viiolence/death. I don’t know if it will be possible to turn back that tide. Anyway, it not my problem – good luck to them.

            I have no problem with being friendly to Muslims who seek to promote peace. As Matt 5:9 says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. I don’t believe the Christians have a monopoly on the spirit of Christ.

            With regard to violence and Jesus’s prohibition, Ellul himself never justified the use of violence. However, having lived thought the second world war, and in the light of what was happening for example to the Jews at the time, it would have been difficult to argue that Hitler did not have to be stopped.

          2. Dan Martin Post Author

            Discussion is welcome, Mikel … including (maybe especially) with people who don’t share my perspective. But let’s take your points one by one:

            First, about people wanting to live in peace. I’m not saying people aren’t sinful, though the doctrine of “original sin” requires further unpacking … you might want to take a look around this blog for articles on atonement as you’ll see I don’t toe the usual lines. But in point of fact, even sinful people tend to find the old maxim “live and let live” to be a pretty desirable state of affairs. Covetousness for power, real though it is, tends to concentrate in a few who then manipulate the masses.

            I completely agree with your statement that “the gospel strikes at the heart of covetousness and the desire for power,” though the following contention that Islam legitimates it is, I think, the kind of mischaracterization an outsider makes. Take a look at this article for further thoughts in this regard. The short version is that when outsiders to any religion, arrogate to themselves the right to interpret that religion “better” than those from within, they ought to be met with suspicion of both authority and motive.

            Ultimately, I push back on your comments with the vigor I do, not least because of the original post to which they are a response. That post was to deny the validity of American Christians’ claim that we are, and inevitably must be, at war with Islam and Muslims with us. If you are not advocating for a violent response by Christians, to the perceived Islamic threat, you probably ought to nuance your comments a bit more clearly, not only for the sake of dialogue between the two of us, but for those other readers who might come across the conversation.



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