I was privileged recently to participate in a conference entitled “Islamophobia and Religious Freedom” at Temple University in Philadelphia. The conference was sponsored, in part, by the organizations headed men whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few years – Dr. Douglas Johnston of The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and Dr. Rick Love of Peace Catalysts International.
The primary purpose of the conference was to address the perpetual rift between Evangelical Christians and Muslims in the United States – two groups that seem to always be at intractable odds. There were a number of excellent presentations by experts in various aspects of religion and religious freedom from both the Christian and Muslim faith traditions. Some presentations covered sensitive topics of concern to the Christian and Muslim communities respectively; however, these topics were discussed in a much-needed spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.
No participant at this conference was under the illusion that the fault lines between the evangelical Christian and Muslim communities are imagined. This conference was not designed to have Christian and Muslim leaders come together, sing “Kumbaya”, and sweep the issues under the rug. The purpose was just the opposite.
I had the pleasure of moderating an enlightening discussion concerning barriers to peaceful relations with Muslims, real and perceived, among Evangelical Christians. The presentations focused on concerns about Islamic extremism in America, the persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries, and the perceived failure of moderate Muslims to counter the extremist Islamic message. These are serious topics and valid concerns among Evangelical Christians. I would like to share my insights on each of these topics in the context of the presentations at this conference.
While media coverage implies that Islamic extremism is increasing and spreading in the Middle East, the facts do not support the notion of a rise in Islamic radicalism here in the United States. According to Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been over 190,000 murders in the United States. Of those, 37 were committed by Muslim-American terrorists – a miniscule percentage that certainly belies the notion of Islamic extremism infiltrating American society.
Many within Evangelical Christianity have asked “why do Muslims hate Christians so?” in response to the media reports of persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries. However, I can assure you that many Muslims ask the same question of Christians when they hear the vile general accusations toward Islam that are hurled by some prominent evangelical Christians. Unfortunately, we heard stories of young Muslim children right here in the United States that have been beaten and ridiculed for their faith by other “normal” children.
The third topic in my panel discussion asked the question, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” The fact of the matter is they are there and are vocal; however, as we all know, especially during the current election cycle, those that stand for peace are not as attractive to the media as those who advocate controversy. As Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post has said, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Do we, as Evangelical Christians, feel the need to publicly condemn the Westboro Baptist Church each time they spew hate in the name of Christianity? Or the hundreds of murders that occur across the United States every month committed by misguided individuals that happen to be from a Christian background? We do not automatically make the connection between violent acts and a person’s religion in any context other than Islam.
Again, I do not pretend to believe that there are not issues between the two faiths that must be addressed head-on; however, I am dismayed at the seeming prejudice displayed by some in both faith traditions that imply that the two faiths are somehow incompatible and incapable of peace. Honestly, I am not sure what lies behind that feeling among some – I am sure it is exceedingly complex. I can only speak to the misunderstandings and enmity that originate within my faith tradition – Evangelical Christianity.
The challenge for Evangelicals in addressing these issues is that we tend to revert to our basest human natures which are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. We do this out of a real or perceived fear. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, whether they be black, white, Jewish, Islamic, or just like us. What “loving someone” means has a number of different interpretations for different people; however, loving someone as ourselves leaves no doubt as to what we are commanded to do. In doing anything other than this, we, as Christians, risk losing our Christian identity and betraying the Christian values that we claim to espouse.