This is the phrase I put on the board for my students last week. They were not overly fond of my logic. But I had built us up to the moment. I noted a number of terrorist attacks from the last generation, which included various religious and anti-religious backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, ideologies, philosophies, politics, classes, and mental states. I noted the one thing that terrorists had in common: they were men.
After a moment of silence, one student noted that there was a potential female terrorist in Paris. Another noted Palestinian suicide bombers that were women. And there is the IRA of the 20th century.
So I amended my logical statement:
This wasn’t satisfying, not least for the men in the room. But I would suspect that most readers know of quite a few men that are not terrorists. The logic doesn’t seem to work with everyday life.
Yet this is the hidden logic in some of the media and social media presentations about the terrorism of recent weeks. The next President of the United States, Donald Trump, responded to the Paris Attacks by suggesting that he would look at closing mosques in the U.S. One of the most publicized thinkers in one of the most powerful and creative countries in the world is reacting with the kind of logic that my 1st year students, right out of high school, knew was suspect.
The result of this fuzzy thinking in culture is that while millions face dislocation, cold, and hunger as they flee a region destabilized by the post-9/11 war on terror, there is a gut-level reaction against Muslims. Some respond by reminding folk that the refugees are the victims of Islamist extremism, not the perpetrators. Others remind us that 1 in 6 of the refugees are Christians and other minorities that have faced generations of oppression. And others, like Waleed Aly—an expert in terrorism who finds himself as a host of a humorous pop culture news show—has reminded us that the Paris Attackers meant to bring out bigotry and panic in all of us.
While all these responses are valid, I want to appeal as a Christian to reactions against Islam as a whole.
This has been a really difficult post for me to write. I know that some readers will be offended by what I have to say. Some may even feel betrayed. But my job as a Christian scholar is to offer an understanding of how to think Christianly. It is your job to consider that view, and critique it or apply it as you think best.
I remember when the Oklohoma bombing took place. I was sent to me knees by the thought of daycare children lying beneath the rubble, and felt a connection to a city I did not know for the people that they had lost forever. I was quite young, and still didn’t have a way of thinking about violence all around me.
Part of me was worried about the cause of the attacks. When it was announced that Christian white supremacists were behind the violence, I groaned inwardly. Here we go again, I thought, another round of atheist attacks against Christianity.
Any thinking person knows that simply because a terrorist is Christian, it doesn’t mean that Christianity is inherently violent. And most of us recognize that the American limb of racism that came out of the Christian community is a diseased twig, not the main branch.
Still, every time Christians did or said something dumb, I faced a barrage of “there you go!” confirmations by anti-Christians. It grew tiresome as the shrill pitch of the New Atheists began to hit social media, especially from people who should know better. 9/11 meant a switch to the Muslim world, and among the New Atheists, the question, “is there something wrong about religion as a human experience that leads it to destroy others?”
Besides learning that I shouldn’t feed trolls, my main lesson from this period was that social media and superstar commentators very seldom described the Christian faith in a way that I could recognize. It felt to me like they designed a frail and thin Christianity, and then showed the world how easy it was to knock over. Still, to this day, I feel marginalized by media. And as an academic I have come to recognize that many don’t understand the things they are critiquing.
I got tired of this cherrypicking approach to Christianity, and I do not like it when I see applied to others.
I believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the reality that God has entered the human story as a human child in distant culture and time to bring hope to all peoples and transform the universe into a space of truth and beauty. This is a belief that is rejected by Muslims, who venerate Jesus (and Mary), but see him as a great prophet, not God-in-flesh. Muslims have fundamentally rejected what I think to be the best understanding of what God has done in Jesus.
Christians like me are “other” to Muslims; we are left to think about how we live together in this world. Sometimes in history that has gone well. Often enough it has gone badly.
And that’s the crux for many Western Christians, I think. When people have anxiety about refugees, they aren’t thinking really about the theological distinctions of who Jesus is or how to read the Bible.
Most people who are worried about Islam and refugees are worried about violence, terrorist, threat and war.
It is hear that I am not anti-Muslim. I have studied Islam enough to have rejected it, but I am not convinced that it is all evil. Or even mostly evil. I do not think our media and pop culture sources have presented this part well. I also think that some preachers and commentators have done a disservice to truthfulness and self-honesty.
Just because the extremism and violence of this last generation has come from Muslims, does not mean that represents the best or most central part of Islam—any more than American racism or Irish religious war or the Rwandan genocide or Ugandan anti-gay laws tell us about Christianity. Having studied Islam’s beliefs and history, I think that the violence of a few hundred terrorists in the last 35 years does not tell us much about the billions of Muslims of history or about the people that founded that religion.
Muhammad was a tribal leader, and engaged in warfare. Most of us have not fought, so perhaps we are not best to judge. But some of the blood he shed seems problematic to me. Within a century of his death, the tribal confederacy that submitted to Muhammad’s rule had conquered a huge swath of land. Much of West Asia and North Africa was Muslim at the close of the 7th century, though not all by the sword. Byzantine Christian cultures, in particular, invited the renewal of faith that the Muslims brought with them.
As the middle ages progressed, I discovered in my research on the roots of antisemitism that the Muslim world was often friendlier to Jews than the so-called Christian world of Europe. And although the University finds its roots in 13th century monasticism, Europe was struggling to find creative new outlets for the exploration of philosophy, science, medicine, and art. Whatever evils came of the Crusades and the late Muslim pressure on Europe from the 8th-15th centuries, the result was that Christians learned from widespread Muslim advances in shipping, literary criticism, languages, philosophy, astronomy, theology, medicine, and the brewing of ales.
That Islamic renaissance would fade as Europe found its feet as a global force. But when you consider the negative parts of European renaissance—global wars, normative antisemitism, race-based slavery, environmental and cultural destruction in colonial expansion, and a collective loss of faith—I struggle to see Islam as the sole bad guy here.
In fact, I would go farther: man to man, culture to culture, year to year, blade to blade, Christian leaders have caused as much pain as Muslim leaders ever attempted to perpetrate. 15,000-20,000 victims of terrorism in the last 35 years are a drop in the bucket compared with centuries of European conquest and fratricide.
And this from Christian people who claim to follow a man who chose to lay down his power and take up the suffering of others upon the cross.
Perhaps, though, there is something at the root of Islam that is poisonous. Even if the tree bears good fruit, its violence is buried deep within it. After all, Muhammad and the earliest leaders (the Rashidun) shed a lot of blood. So maybe the terrorism and bloodshed of today is the result of deeply embedded violence.
This is a powerful argument, but I don’t think a Bible believing Christian can make it consistently. If we honestly look into our own Scriptures, we see warrior leaders like Moses, Joshua, and David perpetrated exactly the same kind of violence as Muhammad and the Rashidun. The key difference is that the Rashidun were far more successful than the Israelite leaders ever were.
Don’t get me wrong: I have rejected Islam. I believe that God-in-Christ took violence into his body, suffering for us. Instead of taking up the sword, he carried the cross. The myth of violence is turned inside out in Christ’s self-sacrifice—a sacrifice that we are supposed to act out in our daily lives with our friends and enemies.
I don’t think that Islam gets to the heart of the human condition in its teaching because it does not reflect Christ’s action on the cross. This is where European Christianity failed too. The European church confused the cross and the sword when it took up violence as a tool for Christian discipleship.
So I have problems with Islam, but I don’t think they make Islam inherently or essentially or altogether violent. It is a complex, diverse religion spread all over the globe. The largest communities of Muslim are not Arab, but from the Subcontinent and Southeast Asian regions. And this generation is such a small part of the last 1400 years. To judge all of Islam by Paris Attackers or imams in Tehran or 9/11 murderers is wrong.
What do I do, then, with my Muslim neighbours?
The same thing I do with neighbours who are Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, gardeners, hockey lovers, bakers, artists, vegetarians, and lovers of model trains. I believe that Christians are called to be cultural transformers—not merely by having awesome blogs or clever apologetics or good art, but by living simple, good, Holy Spirit-filled lives in the midst of a world that likes to crush things that are beautiful. By meeting tyranny with love—as Christ did on the cross—and by living lives of self-sacrifice, we will bear out the truth of our beliefs.
This is why I’m not anti-Muslim: because I believe the gospel calls us to die to our own desires and prejudices and live in radical love. Any other path to victory is not Christian victory, but a kind of worldly supremacy. This sort of “win” doesn’t interest me, whether it comes in excluding refugees, closing Mosques, or launching clever tweets out into a Babel of voices.