Thursday, September 6, 2007

Jesus and Islam, part 1

In this entry I am going to attempt an answer to a question which seems to have been a theme of my time in the U.S. The media has been saying a lot about Arabs and Muslims for several years now, and people seem to be getting two contradictory messages: Islam is a religion of peace, and Muslims support extremism and terrorism. I recently watched a documentary that was apparently arguing both things at the same time!

So the question underlying many conversations I've had is: Are they the enemy? Specifically, do Arab Muslims want to kill "us", or do they wish that they could become just like "us"? Yes and no, and neither.

I need to start answering this question from the unique perspective of a Christian who believes that my relationship with Jesus is the defining factor of my life. If you share that with me, this paragraph is for you. Islam is not the enemy. Yes, Islam and Christianity do stand in direct opposition to each other in many ways: both are religions which believe the world would be better off if all people followed them. But my understanding of my faith is that Christ is bigger than a religion and as such it is wrong to think that another religion can be the enemy. The enemy is evil, and forces of evil. Yes, evil has used Islam a lot, but that's not the same. In fact, Christianity has unfortunately been used for evil many times as well. I think we Christians often make the mistake of thinking if we can just defeat Islam, the world will be better for Christianity, but evil will always find something to use against Christianity.

But what about the geopolitical perspective? Is Islam the enemy of democracy and the freedom we enshrine in the West? Are Arabs, or extremist Muslims, the enemy of Americans? Even in phrasing these questions, I am reminded of an important distinction. On one hand we have American patriotism, which entails a certain type of reverence: for example, never dishonour the flag in any way... pledge loyalty to country on a daily basis... etc. On the other hand, as a Christian, I remember being taught as a child that the Bible keeps its meaning and power even if it's stomped on, burned, etc. I've always been taught that my faith is something a bit more intangible than patriotism. So here's the thing: Muslim faith generally looks a lot more like American patriotism than like American Christianity. It is extremely tangible, expressed in daily rituals and extreme reverence for the Qur'an. So those politicians and political commentators who see Islam, especially groups that are extremely fanatical about Islam, as enemies of the United States, are onto something.

With these things in mind, I want to ask to you to imagine yourself in the shoes of an Arab Muslim. Let's say you're a Jordanian who has several Palestinian neighbours. Those Palestinians have been living in your building since before you were born, and there's no sign they'll be leaving anytime soon. After all, an Israeli family now lives in their family's ancestral home. Your grandparents tell you stories of how your neighbourhood used to be spacious with lots of trees, but now it's crowded because of all the Palestinians. In the past 15 years it's become even more crowded, and the poverty is even more visible, because a few blocks away is a new Iraqi refugee camp - when America invaded they had to flee and your country was one of few who accepted them. You're unemployed because the economy isn't doing so well; you tried to apply for a visa to work in Germany where you have relatives but were refused; they thought you might be connected with terrorists and, plus, it's hard for people from developing countries to get visas to Europe. When you went to school, there were several Christians; they were mostly middle-upper class, and your classmates told you all kinds of awful tales about them, including how they get money from Europe. After class you used to hang out near an upscale shopping mall. Of course you couldn't afford anything there, but you saw rich kids coming in and out - those were the ones who got rich from selling oil to America. So it seems that everything that happens in your country is related to America or Europe. The wealth is there, but in the hands of the elite, hand-picked by America. The poverty is worse, and it's because of America to the East, and Israel (which everyone knows is supported by America and its friends) to the West. You know that Christianity is an inferior religion but Christians seem to be protected because they have European connections.

I'm not saying any of this is true, but nor am I saying it's all made-up. What I am saying is that this is how many Arabs feel. Live a whole life in that reality, and you are going to feel that the United States and Europe and Christians are attacking you! Your government does nothing, just bends over to appease the very countries who have made your life miserable - it seems your government has sold itself to the devil! So you meet someone who is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizbollah, or Hamas, or al-Quaeda. This person tells you about how if you join them you can not only live your religion to the fullest, but you can also defend yourself against those Western countries and show that your religion really is the better one. Can you see the appeal? Or perhaps you just hear about such groups by watching the news on TV and it seems you have three choices: you don't care, you support America and Europe (remember, all the bad stuff in your life is their fault), or you support the terrorists. Which one will seem like the right choice?

So are Arab Muslims the enemy? Well, in some ways, yes. But they're the enemy largely because they feel attacked. Because America has all the money and military power and is busy shaming them in every way imaginable. They look to groups that we call terrorists to provide them a bit of dignity and a way to fight back. Do they hate us? Well, in some ways, yes. Because it seems like we stand for all the things that have hurt them.

I feel like I should give here some recommendations for what we should do if we accept this perspective, but I'll save that for a later post. Feel free to make your suggestions here; I'd like to hear them!

1 comment:

marktristan said...

ktk, the reason it's so valuable hearing from you about this is because you take trouble to reorient the reader's perspective (your fifth paragraph) rather than just offer opinions and hypotheticals.

There's a whole stream of flannel available elsewhere in the media on this question -- but your post has made me stop and think. I encourage you to do this as much as possible.

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