Archive for October, 2010

 I have not always known how to take Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  On the one hand, she speaks out boldly on issues that affect Muslim women, like honor killing and forced marriage, so is definitely a voice for the voiceless.  On the other hand, she uses inflammatory language that apparently appeals to some Western women.  For example, she refers to Muhammad as a pedophile and says Islam is incompatible with democracy.  In producing a film with Van Gogh in Holland several years back, there were Qur’anic verses shown on the body of a naked woman.  Now, having just finished Nomad, I encourage all of us to pray for her salvation because she seems to be on a journey.  Though atheist, interestingly Ali says one of the hopes for the emancipation of Muslim women is the Christian church, but goes on to condemn two extremes in the church: evangelical fundamentalists, and liberal, nominal Christian ecumenists who see Islam as a religion of peace to be tolerated and protected.  I commend an excellent review of Nomad recently published in BooksandCulture.com by Benjamin B. DeVan.

 Among immigrants aspiring to brave futures in the land of the free, few are as controversial or as mobile as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As a child, Hirsi Ali lived in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Kenya. As a young woman, she fled an arranged marriage to a cousin in Canada, seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Eleven years later, she was a Dutch citizen and a Member of Parliament. By 2004, Hirsi Ali feared for her life after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, whose killer stabbed a letter threatening her with death into Van Gogh’s chest. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali were co-creators of the film Submission, Part 1, dramatizing a series of monologues portraying Muslim women who pour out heartfelt pains to God.

Following Van Gogh’s death, Hirsi Ali was stripped of her Dutch citizenship, then later received it back. She traveled from safe house to safe house under security surveillance costing annually the equivalent of millions of dollars. Under the watchful supervision of bodyguards she entered America, where at first she felt rootless and lost: “To be a nomad, always wandering, had always sounded romantic. In practice, to be homeless and living out of a suitcase was a little foretaste of hell.”

Hirsi Ali’s first memoir, Infidel (in Dutch as Mijn Vrijheid, “My Freedom”), written with assistance from an anonymous ghostwriter and published in the United States in 2007, became an international bestseller. A collection of essays, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, was first published in 2006 and reissued in an expanded version in 2008. (This volume includes the script for Submission, Part 1.) And now we have Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations. The new book is in part a sequel to Infidel; both carry endorsements or forwards by New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

Infidel chronicles Hirsi Ali’s journey to atheism. But while Nomad continues to convey some of the disdain for religious faith that animated her first book, it falls short of pervasive disregard for belief in God—not least by extolling curiously construed “moderate Christians” who “do not take every word in the Bible to be the word of God. They don’t seek to actively live exactly as Jesus Christ and his disciples did. They are actually critical of the Bible, which they read in their own language and have revised several times. There are parts they deem inspirational and parts they deem no longer relevant.”

Nomad updates readers on relationships introduced in Infidel with Hirsi Ali’s mostly estranged family members. She depicts her family as destitute, devout, oppressed by the strictures of Islam, and incessantly begging her to return to the faith. Her now deceased father, whom she refers to as “Abeh” (Somali for “papa” or “daddy”), tells her, “You must remember, Ayaan, that our health and our lives are in the hands of Allah. I am on my way to the hereafter. My dear child, what I want you to do is read just one chapter of the Quran. Laa-uqsim Bi-yawmi-il-qiyaama,” about resurrection day. Hirsi Ali dedicates Nomad to a “surrogate Abeh—a friend, a mentor, a guide to American Life—with respect and love.” Nomad is her paean to America, which she describes as her new home. She also warns Americans about the dangers of radical Islam, dangers she presents as systemic beyond sensational attacks perpetrated by terrorists.

Much ink has been spilled and digitalized denouncing and defending Hirsi Ali, especially her assertions about Islam. That she is a divisive figure is meticulously documented. Debate about her proposals is valuable. But this review is not about her accuracy, tact, or political activism generally. It is rather about her direct challenges to Christians, and about trying to discern another “Abeh” (or “Abba,” Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6 ) whispering through the pages of Nomad.

If memory serves correctly, I have heard several interviews in which Hirsi Ali characterized Christianity as like every other religion in peddling magical thinking, miracles, myths such as stories about dying and rising gods, and Freudian wishful thinking of a Big Mama or Big Daddy in the sky. Reading Infidel and the script for Submission, Part 1, one sometimes encounters muted versions of the devilish deity shrieking through the pages of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. But at the same time, one hears holy discontent, authentic cries for justice, and sincere bewilderment at God akin to prayers by biblical sufferers like Naomi, Hannah, the Psalmist, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Job, and Jesus as he hung on the cross.

To the extent Hirsi Ali mourns injustice and works to alleviate suffering, she walks “in the path of the prophets,” as eastern Patriarch Timothy I, eager to be conciliatory, once described the Islamic prophet Muhammad to Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi. Correspondingly, wherever she cares for the downtrodden and gives voice to the voiceless, she is “not far from the kingdom of God,” as Jesus said of a wise interlocutor in Mark 12:34.

Ultimately in Nomad, instead of aggressively opposing Christianity, Hirsi Ali asks, “Can the various churches of Christianity help stem this rising tide of violent Islam?” She adds, “I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—the esteemed trinity of atheist activists in Britain and the United States—will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians.” Astonishingly, she suggests if not implores:

Churches should begin dawa [evangelism, or witnessing in Islam] exactly as Islam does … go into Muslim communities, provide services just as radical Muslims do: build … schools, hospitals, and community centers … don’t just leave this in the hands of governments—take an active role …. Teach hygiene, discipline, a work ethic, and also what you believe in.

Hirsi Ali calls on Christians not only to implement social services, because unlike radical Islamists, “moderate churches do not offer spiritual guidance but only practical help. I think they should do both.” She advises reaching out to Muslim asylum seekers and immigrants, some of whom will convert to Christianity: “I would be willing to bet that those people, and their children, have been subsequently far less receptive to the hateful message of the jihadi Muslims.” Along the same lines, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson once warned that failure to support ministry and evangelism within prisons often meant surrendering prisoners to a realm of persuasion where “jihadists and other radical groups … [are] the only game in town. But most jarring is this:

Christian leaders now wasting precious time and resources on a futile exercise of interfaith dialogue with … self-appointed leaders of Islam should redirect their efforts to converting as many Muslims as possible to Christianity, introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of love for mankind.

For Christians, Hirsi Ali’s exhortation to evangelism cuts to the heart. Yet one need not be a Christian, nor agree with her assessment of “futile” interfaith dialogue, to share her hope that “Converts to Christianity would have recognized the radicals when they arrived and resisted the siren song of jihad.”

Although Hirsi Ali recommends Christianity to Muslims, she has not embraced Christianity herself. If intellectual skepticism holds her back, I wonder if she has perused the essays of fellow feminist Dorothy L. Sayers, the popular British playwright and mystery novelist, and one of the first female graduates of Oxford University. In “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Sayers reiterates an argument by J. R. R. Tolkien and others who were instrumental in wooing her friend, colleague, and former atheist C. S. Lewis back to Christianity.

Sayers argues that while pagan and fictional stories, such as Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, contain accounts of reconciling humans and the divine through divine suffering, “in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of prehistory. The Christian story, on the other hand, starts off briskly in St. Matthew’s account with a place and a date.” Lewis, for his part, considered redemptive myths from pagan sources as “good dreams” whose noblest elements echo and are fulfilled truly in Jesus. Christianity was, for Lewis, “myth become fact.”

Lewis also offers a solid Christian approach to defining and evaluating Miracles, and he turns the argument of “wishful thinking” back on Freud by musing that atheists themselves may be motivated by the wishful thinking that no one holds them ultimately accountable. Maybe the near universal longing for God is not a neurosis after all: “If I find in myself a desire which no other experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

When I read bestsellers by the New Atheists, I frequently feel a reader’s affection mingled with melancholy when they employ their literary talents not to glorify but to obscure or caricature God. So too with Hirsi Ali. My prayer for her is that she will continue to contemplate and reconsider the better God she tentatively commends to others in Nomad—a God who shares her adopted name (Ali means “Exalted” in Arabic), a God who is the true and best Abeh, whose love exceeds the love of all earthly parents (Isaiah 49:15), who yearns to adopt Hirsi Ali as his own daughter; and who invites her prodigal friends Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to return home as sons.

Perhaps this Divine Abeh was alluded to indirectly even by Hirsi Ali’s less than perfect biological Abeh. Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25, NRSV). According to Jesus, those who believe in him will live by embracing the kingdom of justice and mercy that takes root in every heart that bids it welcome. And If Hirsi Ali hasn’t already studied the Sovereign of this kingdom through the Gospel of Matthew (for example chapter 8, verse 20), she may be surprised to discover that he too knows what it feels like to live as a nomad.

Benjamin B. DeVan completed his A.A. at Young Harris College, a B.S. at Berry College, his M.A. in Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, and his M.Div. at Duke University before enrolling at Harvard (Th.M., 2010) for further study in world religions, with a thesis on evangelical Christians and Islam.

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Joseph Cumming, Director of Yale University’s Reconciliation Program, and adjunct faculty at the Zwemer Center, has written an article about the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero.  He offers a perspective that is instructive for peaceful relations and faithful to the Scriptures.  

The Park51 Islamic Center near Ground Zero: Principles from Jesus

By Joseph Cumming, Director, Reconciliation Program

Secular pundits have debated endlessly the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. Does Christian faith offer resources for thinking faithfully about this controversy? Here are a few:

False witness
Jesus says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Mt 19:18). We sometimes forget that this is one of the Ten Commandments alongside commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been accused of supporting terrorism and of other grave offenses. FactCheck.org has documented how his words have been taken out of context, distorted, exaggerated or even fabricated.  (See FactCheck’s details here.)

Love vs. Fear
Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). Love may not always tell others what they want, but it refuses to give in to fear. Much of the media storm surrounding Park51 has appealed not to our moral sensibilities, but to our fears. Christians must not allow fear to motivate moral decisions.

Do unto others…
Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). If Christians want Muslims to defend religious liberty for Christians in Muslim-majority countries, then Jesus’ words mean we must speak up for Muslims’ liberty when they are in the minority.

In the town of Bekasi, Indonesia a Christian congregation has long sought to build a church on land they own, but has been prevented by Muslims who said to the BBC, “The non-Muslims should understand the feeling of the Muslims here. We are the majority here.” In the meantime the congregation has held makeshift, open-air services on their property, but two Sundays ago their pastor was beaten and one elder was stabbed by Muslim assailants. Last Sunday police barred the Christians from holding their worship service (See here for Al-Jazeera’s English Coverage). Christians who would like Muslims to speak up in defense of these Christians’ rights must themselves speak up for Muslims’ rights to build mosques and worship freely.

Someone may object that Ground Zero is hallowed ground and therefore different from Bekasi. Muslims respond that Park51 is two blocks away from Ground Zero, and that four blocks from Ground Zero is a mosque which predates the World Trade Center, and that 32 innocent Muslims died on 9/11. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle adds another dimension: if we would not want Muslims to ban, say, Iraqi Christians from building any churches in the entire Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad, because Christians committed atrocities there, then we should not deny peaceable Muslims the right to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.

Some argue, “We’ll let them build a mosque there when they let us build a church in Mecca.” But immediately after enunciating his do-unto-others principle, Jesus added, “Do good, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:32-35). We must defend liberty for others whether or not they reciprocate. Christians should set a moral example for the world, not wait for others to lead.

 Hate crimes
Last summer a dear American friend and colleague of mine was murdered by Al-Qa‘ida in North Africa because of his Christian faith. I was grateful to Muslim leaders who spoke out condemning this hate crime, and to the government, which erected a monument in his honor highlighting the biblical words “God is love.”

A few weeks ago a Muslim taxi driver in New York had his throat slashed by a college student who cursed him for being Muslim. News media paid only passing attention to this, as it was just one of numerous hate crimes against Muslims in the context of anti-Muslim rage over Park51. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle says that if I want Muslims to speak out against the murder of my friend, then I must speak out about hate crimes committed against Muslims.

“Do unto others” in reverse

Similar to Jesus’ do-unto-others principle, Islamic tradition reports that the Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you has truly believed until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself.” This means Imam Feisal and the Park51 team also need to imagine themselves in the shoes of their non-Muslim neighbors, and must be sensitive to the pain Muslims might feel if the situation were reversed.

Shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, some Christians wanted to erect a large cross in downtown Baghdad. They intended to communicate a message of love and reconciliation, but Iraqi Muslims perceived it as a message of militant conquest. I was among Christians who urged that this was not a sensitive or effective way to communicate a message of love. These Christians had a right to free expression, but this was not the wisest way to exercise that right.

Imam Feisal’s goal is to promote tolerance, interfaith understanding and healing. But reaction to Park51 has had the opposite effect, bringing out intolerance, and opening not-yet-healed wounds. The next time I speak with Imam Feisal, I will affirm strongly that he has a right to build his center just as planned, and that I will defend that right. But I will also suggest that he will accomplish his goal more effectively and sensitively if he voluntarily and uncoercedly considers revising his plan – perhaps moving it, perhaps giving it a more thoroughly interfaith character, or perhaps just consulting carefully with friendly Muslims, Christians, Jews and others about how this crisis might be defused. I am encouraged that he currently appears to be doing precisely that.

In the meantime, however, it is not the place of Christians to lecture Muslims about how they should live the Golden Rule. Jesus says we must “Do good, expecting nothing in return.” And Jesus’ words about logs and specks (Luke 6:41–42) suggest we must first defend Muslim fellow-citizens’ liberty, and only then will we “see clearly” to ask Muslims about their actions toward non-Muslims.

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1.   Self-evaluation and Repentance

Whenever we face calamity, the Bible instructs us to humble ourselves, repent of our own sins and turn to God (II Chronicles 7:14).  As horrific as terrorists attacks are, we must recall the words of our Lord: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3).  Or, “… unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:1-5).  America is the world’s number one advertiser of a life-style allowing adultery, homosexuality, pornography, and abortion.  And far too many professing Christians participate in these sins.  As the church of Christ we need to repent and cry out for God’s mercy.

2.   Trust in God

Christians need to trust that God is in control and will bring good out of evil in these turbulent times: “And we know that in all things God works for the good to those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  After immense suffering, Joseph was able to say to his brothers: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:2).  It has been refreshing to see how this generation, often bent on selfishness, has banded together to sacrifice and service.  Since the arrest of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan for sharing their faith, God will surely raise up many more to pray and go to Muslims with the gospel.  Christians are becoming more aware of the great physical and spiritual needs of Muslims throughout the world.

3.   Engage in Dialogue

In some cases Muslim activists have been given an open platform in churches to explain Islam.  If we do invite a Muslim to speak in church we should also invite a Christian who is knowledgeable in Islam to present the Christian perspective on the subject at hand.  Giving Muslims an open platform to propagate their faith confuses Christians and sends the wrong message about Islam.  Also, it only seems fair that Christians should in turn be invited to mosques to give the Christian view, in order to have true Muslim-Christian dialogue.

4.   Anticipate Greater Receptivity

We should anticipate greater Muslim receptivity in the days ahead as they hear the gospel.  Christians have been praying for centuries that Muslims would respond but often there has been little lasting fruit.  Research study on Islamic fundamentalism and Christian conversion indicates that when Muslims see the rigidity and severity of the Shari’ah, they tend to reject Islam and embrace the “Prince of Peace.” 

5.   Prepare for Total Commitment

There is a parallel between our present crisis and biblical records about the circumstances surrounding Queen Esther.  Her people were targeted for destruction, but facing this dilemma, she sensed that God had placed her in the kingdom “for such a time as this.”   In simple faith, she said, “If I perish, I perish.”  As God worked out his plan then to save his people through Esther, it seems that God now wants to use the church to avert the eternal destruction of innocent Muslims around the world.  With more than a billion Muslims in our world, who awaken daily without the Scriptures, and without any assurance that their sins are forgiven, we must redouble our efforts in prayer, giving and going.  Will we respond as our Lord desires for such a time as this?

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