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Archive for May, 2012

This is the first of several articles I will post on “the topic: “Barriers and Bridges in Befriending Muslims”–fortunately twice as many bridges as barriers! (Warren Larson)

On the morning of 9-11, I was teaching a course on Islam at Columbia International University, and during the break heard the tragic news.  A few faculty members gathered in a conference center where a small television had been set up, and we saw the towers fall.  Regular chapel was cancelled and a senior colleague was called upon to give some comfort and direction.  He said, “Our nation has been humbled and we have suffered attacks on the highest levels of our financial and government institutions.  The greatest symbols of our power and glory have toppled; we need to pray and trust God.”

 On May 2, one year ago, my article, “Do not Gloat over Osama bin Laden’s Death” was published in Christianity TodayQuoting the Scripture that says not to “gloat when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:7), I said that rather than playing bagpipes, dancing in the streets, and singing Amazing Grace near Ground Zero, we should be praying for Muslims.  Although we can be thankful bin Laden is no longer around to threaten us, we must demonstrate spiritual concern for the countless Muslims still alive, many of whom are open to hearing the good news.

To help the church see how needy Muslims are, I have a message entitled, “Five Muslims by the side of the road,” likening all of them to the man Jesus talked about who was left wounded and bleeding, while religious folks passed him by.  They include a destitute woman (more than ½ billion Muslim women constitute the largest block of unreached peoples), a folk Muslim–75% of Muslims in our world do daily battle with spirits where the world view involves charms, amulets, curses, blessings and the evil eye.  There is of course the ordinary one next door, but the last Muslim is a radical, and it is mostly because of him that the church is confused and struggling.

There are many barriers that keep Muslims away: theological (Muslims struggle with certain concepts, like the incarnation and Son of God issue), social (family and society work together to prevent anyone from leaving Islam), political (Muslims see Christians as allies of Israel in the plight of Palestinians), historical (unhappy Muslim-Christian conflicts in the past, like the Crusades, have not been forgotten) and economic (sixty percent of the world’s poor are Muslims).  We may not be able to do much about these obstacles, but there are barriers we can do something about, and I believe they are bigger than they were prior to September 11, 2001.

The first barrier is fear.  Not long ago an evangelical pastor I know had a young Muslim man in traditional dress visit his church on a Sunday morning. After taking notes through the sermon, the Muslim approached the pastor at the end of the service to argue. In response, the pastor tried to give biblical answers, but wasn’t prepared for it and felt threatened, mostly because the Muslim kept one hand in his pocket; it was assumed he had a weapon. Others in the church felt the same because of the intense dialog.  He left, saying “You’re all are a bunch of hypocrites and I’m not coming back!”  One deacon suggested bringing guns to church for protection.

After this unpleasant incident, the pastor called for a meeting of other pastors in his denomination to discuss how to respond to such situations, and the Zwemer Center was invited.  Our staff encouraged them to learn all they could about Islam through seminars/courses, seek out Muslim friendships, and most of all to begin praying for Muslims.  The pastors listened politely, but seemed unconvinced.  It was like a gigantic struggle between fear and faith and fear won out.

Such sentiments appear to be widespread, especially among evangelicals.  In a poll taken by the Pew Forum in September of 2004, twenty-nine percent of evangelicals held a “favorable” view of Islam while forty-six percent an “unfavorable” view.  Pew said:  “more than half of white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week have an unfavorable impression of Islam.”

Then, in 2007, Pew noted an increase in negative views by evangelicals toward Muslims and Islam, dropping five points between 2004 and 2007. This same survey said that while Catholic and mainline Protestant views toward Muslims/Islam became somewhat more positive, evangelical views declined: By 2007, twenty-four percent have favorable views in contrast to Catholics (48% favorable) and mainline Protestants (fifty-one percent favorable).

Sensing the trend, six years ago, I wrote an article in Christianity Today that addressed the negative post 9/11 literature on Islam in an article entitled, “Unveiling the Truth about Islam: Too Many Christians Miss the Mark.” This is part of what I said in the review of several books that came out soon after the horrendous event that rocked our nation:

“Unfortunately, too many of these evangelical polemics are historically inaccurate, theologically misinformed, and missiologically misguided. Apparently, a lot of us simply dislike Muslims (usually without knowing any). When we critique Islam, we need to be fair and accurate. Those of us who make Muslim-Christian comparisons must do so from a position of informed engagement, as those who have worked with Muslims. When we review historical tensions between the two faiths, we must apply rigorous historical analysis, when we write about Islam; we must remember that love is the greatest apologetic.”

One book reviewed gave readers the impression that “a real Muslim is by definition a violent one,” and the tendency is once again to define Islam by its most radical expression, rather than by seeking to have a balanced understanding that encompasses the wide variety of Muslims.

Another book with the title, from 9/11 to 666: The Convergence of Current Events, Biblical Prophecy and the Vision of Islam presumes that the antichrist will be a Muslim. Dates were even set for the Beast’s appearance and describe in dramatic detail what life will be like in the United States under the tyranny of Islam. Such presumptuous statements damage Muslim-Christian relations to the extent that people take them seriously.  I also said,

“We Christians must discuss irreconcilable differences with Muslims, but we should also recognize similarities, bridges, and common themes. There is a place for “unveiling” Islam, provided we do it with sensitivity, understanding, and careful research.”

No doubt Muslims do violent things in the name of Islam.  Radicalized Muslims, some of whom were born and bred in the West continue to carry out hateful acts.  It is true that radical Muslims are targeting Christians. Boko Haram, an extremist group in Nigeria, is burning down Christian churches and Coptic churches are going up in flames in Egypt.  The suffering of Christians in Southern Sudan and the case against an Iranian pastor are true.  The media, including some Christian media, focus on this, as they have sought to warn America about radical Islam; but the media have not always given a balanced picture of ordinary Muslims. While media sources cannot be blamed for informing people about radical religion, their focus on terrorism in Islam perpetuates the generalization that all Muslims are untrustworthy, unpatriotic and dangerous.  Some of the coverage is alarmist and many Christians seem paranoid.

There is also fear of Muslim growth.  In Canada, several years ago I saw a sign outside a mosque in Toronto that said: “Everyone welcome and no one told he is a sinner.”  The Ottawa Citizen (8/31/09) told how Muslims have increased.  Over a period of three decades in Canada’s capitol, they grew from 4,000 to 65,000 (one-hundred and twenty-eight percent increase) and this makes most Canadians nervous.  In Europe (fifteen million Muslims), it’s not only the growth, but lack of integration that is worrisome.  When said integration isn’t working, it means Muslims don’t fit. Two years ago, when I was teaching a course just outside Stuttgart, Chancellor Merkel said multiculturalism “has utterly failed.”  What she evidently meant was that millions of Muslims have not integrated well into society.  She’s right.  In France there are other divisive issues, like the veil, and Muslims do not feel at home there either.

Besides, there is fear of an Islamic takeover, of Shari’ah Law, and that Western governments are too soft on Islam.  A news letter received from workers in a major American city received just before Easter put it this way: “Around the world the agenda of Islam marches on—to bring the whole earth under submission to Allah.  Muslim leaders act like the victory is inevitable—and all the while, we in the West are meekly conceding to their many demands. Let us lay hold of the promise that, the one who died for us, rose for us, who daily empowers us, soon coming for us—he alone is the one through whom we are able to have overwhelming victory.”  Another newsletter from one who describes herself as “a student of Islam” and of the Bible, says: “… the Holy Spirit has showed me several times … that the Antichrist will be Islamic.”

Could it be that this is what many want to hear?  They want to hear how evil Islam is, how badly Muslim women are treated, and that Islam has a global agenda.  One group, “Operation save America,” held a procession outside a mosque in Charlotte, NC.  They railed against abortion and homosexuality, but included Muslims in their tirade: “Jesus hates Muslims.”  A Muslim inside the mosque said: “We also love Jesus and if he were here he wouldn’t say he hates us.” We want to preserve our values, our cultures, our “kingdoms” and let the Muslims go to hell.  Many of Islam’s fiercest critics have no interest in repentance and no desire to see Muslims rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light.  We need to be reminded that that God wants to save Muslims, not kill them: “He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).

It is true that some Muslims talk about a “takeover” and think Islam will dominate the world.  Muslims are getting into schools and demand freedom for dress codes and dietary laws, when at the same time either denying or restricting worship of minorities where Islam has a majority.  Evangelicals therefore must be prepared to take on political Islam with political arguments.   An American friend was in the UK, dialoging with Islamic clerics, mostly in universities.  I quote what he wrote to me: “As the team of Muslims with whom I had worked with all week was traveling to the airport, they were holding forth with gusto on the need to establish Muslim rule and Shari’ah Law in England– that was the only hope for England as they were expounding. I weighed in with strong and forth right counter arguments. Eventually there were several minutes of silence, and then the chap who had been expounding the most vehemently in the need for Shari’ah in England observed, ‘If we are honest, we all know that we agree with Dr. S.  That is why we are flying to Canada tonight and not to Pakistan which is our home land. We love the freedoms of Canada and detest the restrictions of Pakistan. In fact in Pakistan I would be put in prison if I practiced there the freedoms that I so love in Canada.'”

Dr. S. went on to say that that our strongest defense against political Islam is to boldly bear witness we who are followers of Christ and committed to the freedoms God himself gives to us and that we are deeply committed to the separation of church and state because that is Biblical.  “If we cherish those freedoms,” he said, “we need to engage Islam in forthright dialogue and encounter on these issues.”

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