Archive for November, 2010

The following is an email from a seminary student regarding his battle to overcome Muslim stereotypes while serving in the military.

I was thinking about some of the things you mentioned before class about how Christians in the military relate to Iraqis and Afghans today.  I haven’t been overseas or been involved in combat operations, so I can’t speak to that aspect, but I spent most of my enlistment learning Arabic and learning about Arab culture and history.  I know that I picked up a certain… disdain, maybe for Arabs and their background, even though all my language teachers were native speakers.  As I studied their culture and history, it was really easy to see them as a pack of glorified tribesmen with guns and camels.  It’s certainly true that their desert heritage is strongly with them despite modern development, but it’s much harder to see the nuances and beauty of their culture.  I know as a military member, it was easier to focus on the monstrosities of Saddam Hussein, the leaders of the Taliban, and the Afghans who murder and maim their own women, than to focus on the everyday people that they oppressed, who didn’t necessarily agree with their leaders’ policies or worldviews.  I think it is fair to say that Arabs (especially groups like the Palestinians or the Afghan tribes) are much more willing to fight for their ancient rights than Westerners are – we prefer to talk, negotiate, and focus on our interests in the future, and so it’s easy to see them as backwards and ignorant.  Their culture has undergone some major changes in the last century, especially at the hands of western powers, and so their cultural development has been greatly accelerated.  What took Europe and America centuries to change, they’re changing in decades.  Obviously, the transition is not smooth, and we see the conflict in the news, and we judge them by that, rather than by who they’ve been for centuries before now. 

When I started learning Arabic, I was really interested in their current events.  I read the BBC website daily and learned to read it in Arabic as well.  I watched the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2007 with great interest, and followed the political developments in Palestine, and the rebuilding process in Iraq.  After a few months though, my interest waned because I realized that the only news that comes out of the Middle East was about three things – bombings, atrocities, and broken agreements.  Certainly this was not all that was going on, but it was the only information that was considered newsworthy.  It took reading books about the Middle East like “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas Friedman and “One Hundred and One Days” by Asne Seierstad to get a glimpse of what was going on besides the killing and violence, to see the everyday lives of people who weren’t involved in conflict.  I also watched clips from Arabic news media at memritv.org, which gave insight (and English subtitles) into current Arab issues besides the wars. Some of the people depicted weren’t that great, but for the most part they provided a welcome, different perspective in comparison with Mullah Omar or Muqtada al’Sadr.
Even as I worked as a linguist, we constantly joked about how backwards the people in our target areas were, and how ignorant they were.  Many people in the countries we focused on didn’t have, as adults, much more than a fourth-grade education, and they were conscripted into military service, rather than volunteers.  Obviously, this affected their capability as a military force and they were not professionals; it could be easy to summarize the entire Middle East with the Iraqi Jumping Jacks video.  Of course, this isn’t true, and it took a fair bit of time and effort to expose myself to other ideas to overcome that stereotype.

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Thy Kingdom Come

I am currently teaching a short course on Islam in Germany where recent comments by Mrs. Merkel have sparked considerable controversy.  The Chancellor said multiculturalism “has utterly failed,” meaning four million Muslims in this country have not integrated.  Her statement reflects anti-immigration sentiment and fear of Islam throughout Europe but also increasingly in North America. Not long ago the Italian Prime Minister said western culture and civilization are superior to anything Islam can come up with.  A German economist’s newly published book claims Muslims are genetically inferior.  Within the last few days articles have come across my desk, expressing what some Americans fear the most: creeping Shariah (Islamic Law).  The threat has been called “Islamofacism.”

It is not my intention here to discuss Islam’s agenda in the West, and what to do about it, but to focus on the spiritual need of Muslims in our world.  The course, “Folk Islam,” explores practical aspects of doing daily battle with Satan and evil spirits.  We noted that seventy-five percent of today’s Muslims operate within a worldview that includes charms, amulets, curses, blessings, the evil eye and lots of fear.  Western Christians need to be most concerned about this kingdom and the nature of this battle.  As Ramez Atallah from Egypt recently said at Lausanne IV in Cape Town: “We must recognize that the Church’s real battle is … ‘against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age’ (Ephesians 6:12).  How we as a Church fight this cosmic battle is a cosmic matter, and the armor of God is our spiritual equipment that moves us forward to victory.”

We begin each day in the class room with a devotional from the book of Daniel, noting how fifteen hundred years ago, God spoke to Babylonian and Persian kings through dreams, and how he used a Jewish exile to interpret them.  The theme of this prophetic book is that God is sovereign and rules in human affairs.  From his own revelations, Daniel was troubled by complex and terrible images, where “beastly” kingdoms rise and fall; he is comforted that the “Ancient of Days” will set up an everlasting kingdom.  The Anointed One would be “cut off,” but “Jesus shall reign where ere the sun doeth its successive journeys run.” The good news is that as never before in history God is drawing Muslims to himself through dreams.  He is building his kingdom.

I am convinced that the West’s darkest fears of Muslims and Islam are often tied to self interest and not for the glory of Jesus.  We want to preserve our values, our cultures, our “kingdoms” and let the Muslims go to hell.  Many of Islam’s fiercest critics among us have no intention to repent and no desire to see Muslims rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light.  Few, including Christians, understand or care that what Muslims need most is deliverance from satanic bondage and the power of evil spirits.  Few are thinking about God’s kingdom, and that he is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). Warren Larson directs the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University.

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