SETTING THE STAGE There is a major world religion that very few of us have spent any time studying. Though it has made a profound impact on world history, it is often ignored or overlooked. Over 1500 years old, it has spread from the Middle East to such far-flung places as Africa, Asia, and Europe. And while its adherents can be found in almost every major country, many of them live below the poverty line, fighting to survive on day-to-day subsistence living.
A monotheistic faith, it has rich theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions. Sadly, most of its followers live in ignorance of this fact, believing God to be a harsh and angry judge who punishes unbelievers and sinners in the afterlife. This ignorance is further reinforced by the fact that both its Scriptures and its worship are read and carried out in a language that most of its own people cannot read or understand. As such, the majority of this religion’s followers rely on the interpretations and teaching from a few educated religious leaders.
In abuse of their position of influence, several of these leaders have preached a version of the faith that encourages violence against those of other faith traditions. They impose harsh taxes on those of other monotheistic faiths and crowd them into ghettos and restricted communities. They execute those deemed heretics and burn their writings in an effort to purify the faith.
But these power hungry clerics are not content. So they rally their followers to wage a holy war against another sovereign nation, one that is rich and whose citizens include people from a variety of religious traditions, cultures, and people groups. These violent clerics’ goal is, ultimately, to overthrow this country and impose their own harsh view of their religion upon its inhabitants, even upon their fellow believers who do not share their own narrow and violent views. Their rallying cry is, “Convert or die!”
Sadly, many of this religion’s followers have taken up the battle cry, having been told that dying in this holy war guarantees them eternal life in paradise and the blessings of God in heaven. And so they march off to battle—men from every socio-economic and cultural background—united by their zeal for holy war.
The religion is Christianity during the Middle Ages. The target is Jerusalem.
Why do I bring this up? Earlier this week I posted a column entitled ISIS & The War on Islam. Not surprisingly it caused a bit of stir. One of the common responses that I received was from fellow Christians who continued to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that ISIS is nothing more than the latest expression of this ingrained hostility.
As such, I thought it would be worthwhile to respond to some of these criticisms by reminding us, as Christians, of our own background and noting some of the parallels between what we see in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and what happened during the Middle Ages with Christianity and the Crusades.
SIDENOTE: STOP COMPARING HOLY WARS Now, before I get too far into this comparison, let me start by addressing a common objection that I have heard over and over again. It goes something like this: “The [medieval] Muslims struck first and conquered the vast majority of the Mediterranean. Besides, they attacked and conquered far more territory than the Christians ever did.” Yes, yes, I have seen your YouTube videos and I have heard this argument.
But let’s get down to brass tax; holy war is holy war, whether being waged by Christians or Muslims. It is all-around bad news. While some people may want to make the Muslims seem like the only bad guys, keep in mind that the Christians of medieval Europe were just as bent on destroying Muslims in the Middle Ages as the Muslims were on conquering the Christians. The only difference is that the Muslim armies were better trained, unified, and led than the ragtag Christian forces that marched off to the Middle East. So it wasn’t for a lack of zeal that the Crusades never ultimately succeeded.
So rather than arguing in circles about who started what and how much territory so-and-so conquered, let’s focus on the bigger picture. The truth is that most Christians (maybe with the exception of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson) think that the Crusades were a bad idea. We, as Christians, recognize that the Crusades were not reflective of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and we are right to repudiate and denounce this dark chapter in our history. We recognize that what spurred on the Crusader mentality was a lot of ignorance, fear, bad theology, economic distress, and the propaganda campaigns of some of the clergy.
ISIS IS NOT ISLAM So what does this have to do with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Well, quite a bit actually. Muslims number over 1.6 billion. That is roughly 23% of the world’s population. Yet the vast majority does not even live in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest number of Muslims is India and the nation with the largest Muslim majority, by percentage, is Indonesia. Islam’s central Scripture, the Qur’an, is written in Arabic. Yet, for most Muslims, Arabic is not their primary language. Finally, if figures are accurate, then the majority of Muslims live in underdeveloped or developing nations. They make ends meet on less that $1 a day, like much of the rest of the world.
So what happens when you have well-funded clerics from more extremist countries telling the rest of the Muslim world that what it means to be faithful to the teachings of Islam is to participate in open war against the West? You get groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda: organizations that actively recruit young people who are disgruntled, often economically poor, or just looking for purpose in an increasingly complex and confusing world.
But this does not mean that this is the truest expression of Islam. Islam is a faith tradition that is rich and complex. It has made a profound impact on world history, enriching the arts and the sciences, even during the medieval period. As such, we must become conversant with the rich history and legacy of this faith tradition. It is worth it to spend some time studying books about Islamic history and theology. It is important to learn from and read well-educated Muslim leaders and scholars as they articulate their faith to the world in ways that are reflective of their religious tradition.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that the majority of Muslims are not violent. They are doctors, business owners, policemen, professors, peace activists, and politicians. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who love their families and who serve their neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and our friends, our co-workers, clients, and service providers.
So let’s not lump them in with the psychopaths that we see on television. Let’s not step on their faith tradition by equating it with those terrorists who would seek to hijack the name “Islam” for their own sordid ends. Rather, let us let them define what Islam truly looks like. Let’s listen to their stories and seek to understand their faith tradition through their own eyes.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a theology professor who said, “One of the greatest disciplines you can pursue is learning to see the world from someone else’s perspective.” I would encourage us to do likewise with our Muslim neighbors by honestly asking ourselves the question, “What is it about Islam that makes it so attractive that it would make people like my friends and neighbors want to follow it?”
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM: CALLING TERRORISM WHAT IT IS One of the common objections that I have heard from people goes something like this: “Well yeah, there are nonviolent Muslims, but these people aren’t really being true to the religion of Muhammad. They are the liberals.”
First of all, not only is this insulting to the majority of Muslims around the world, but it is also not true. I’m hesitant to label the temperate movements within Islam “liberal” because there are many conservative Muslims who are non-violent as well. I think a wonderful example of this is the work that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is doing through Zaytuna College in Berkley, California.
Zaytuna was founded “to help revive Islam’s educational and intellectual legacy and to popularize traditional learning among Western Muslims.” Its goal is to develop Muslim leaders “with the cultural literacy to tend to the spiritual and pastoral needs of American Muslims.” They do this by teaching the traditional Islamic sciences. It is a conservative institution through and through. Yet its founder, Sheikh Hamza, has also been an outspoken critic against groups like ISIS and has actively worked for peace and nonviolence over the course of his distinguished career. What this shows us is that just as there are liberal and conservative Christians who are nonviolent, there are also liberal and conservative Muslims who are nonviolent.
A better distinction would be to learn the common threads that all violent religious groups share in common and label them for what they are: terrorists. There is a huge body of literature out there that highlights the fact that religious extremists of every stripe—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.—share many of the same characteristics in terms of their values and aims. Someone who has done some great research on this is Jessica Stern in her book Terror in the Name of God. Likewise, it is worth it to read Landscapes of Jihad by Faisal Devji, as he paints a powerful picture of what actually drives extremists like Al-Qaeda and how they actively recruit people into their movement.
Again, my hope is that we can redefine this struggle as one that is not between Islam and everyone else, but rather as that between terrorists and the rest of the world. This is not about Islam. This is not about Muslims. This is about a group of violent psychopaths who want to destroy anyone—including Muslims—who does not agree with their own narrow brand of pseudo-religion.
My hope and prayer is that we, as Christians, would begin to stand with our Muslim neighbors in denouncing these violent fanatics and do so in a way that does not demonize and ostracize our friends.