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Lessons Christians Can Learn from Radical Islam


Watching the news is beginning to feel a little like Groundhog Day. I wake up to hear that another raucous group is storming a US embassy.

I watched (the few minutes that I could bear of) Innocence of Muslims. It’s low-quality garbage, yet it sparked an international uproar of intolerance.

It should go without saying that not all Muslims are radical or radically intolerant (as it turns out, not all Christians are either). Muslims gathered in Libya, at no small danger to themselves, soon after Ambassador Christopher Steven’s death to tell the world that the violence at the US embassy was not condoned by them, their belief system or their prophet. Of course, the embassy bombing was given far more media coverage than the peaceful gathering.

If you’re thinking that the chaos—the swiftness and intensity of the outrage—has something deeper fueling it, it does. It’s undeniably linked to our own global ethical failures. But the fact remains that, on some level, what we’re seeing in places like Libya and Tunisia is quite simply a mixture of stereotyping and religious intolerance. This toxic mix has produced hate and violence. From this vantage point, it’s easy to condemn the angry mobs.

But there is a warning here for those of us in the American Christian community—we should watch carefully and learn.

Lesson number one: Stereotyping is lethal.

The angry mob at the US embassy in Benghazi took the negativity of one elusive and undoubtedly arrogant American and extrapolated his poor judgment onto a whole nation. It’s easy for us to see the error this approach. This is America. Our population is made up of of people from various cultural and religious backgrounds. How could someone like the maker of this poor excuse for a film be put into the same category as Christopher Stevens?

Well, it happened.

And here’s the danger. Those with the most radical views are making the news. They become to us the representation of Islam as a whole. We in turn extrapolate these pockets of negativity to include every Muslim person, even those within our own borders. When we do this, we run the risk—like the radicals in Libya—of mistaking what could be the equivalent of a Christopher Stevens for a cowardly filmmaker within the Muslim community.

Lesson number two: Faith requires tolerance.

Creating an image of Mohammed is offensive to some portion of the Islamic world, that much we know. What’s hard to understand is why it would incite such rage. Again, it seems painfully obvious from where we sit that Muslims should, in some sense, keep their faith contained—and many of them do. Their religious regulations should extend to those who have voluntarily chosen to be a part of their tradition. Those who aren’t shouldn’t be expected to adhere to their code and punished when they don’t. They should be tolerated.

As part of the Christian community, I feel concern when we expect or demand others to adhere to our moral or ethical code. A vast majority of us think that America would be healed of her social ills if we legislated our brand of Christianity, thus causing everyone within our borders to abide by our moral standards—ironically enough, something that would be impossible to come to consensus on, as we tend to disagree even denominationally. The key to a healthy religious system and a peaceful multi-religious society is not a forced adherence to religious standards, but a willing adherence from those in-group coupled with a respect for those outside who don’t adhere. My experience though, is that this peaceful co-existence can only be gained through understanding, and true understating can only be gained by forming meaningful relationships with those who are different from us—religiously or otherwise.

But fear often gets in the way. We see “mobs,” “bombs,” and “angry protests” on TV and our best intentions are thwarted. We feel raw and angry for our losses, we want someone to blame, we fear the unknown.

The Challenge

The writer of 1 John challenges early Christians with these words, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

When we feel fear, we move toward punishment—we want our wrongs righted. But as people of faith we are asked to move past the fear, or maybe even into the middle of it, and to do it in love. Love is our motivation and our defense because it will expose fear for what it is: cowardly and pathetic—like a poorly produced anti-Islamic hate movie—and will send it running alone out in the darkness.

What should Christians be doing right now? The answer shouldn’t be hard to figure out: peacemaking. If the words from 1 John weren’t enough to motivate us then maybe those from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount will. He tells his listeners, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” If you’re a Christian, peacemaking is your business. How that looks is up to you. Maybe you make time this month to sit down and have tea with a Muslim friend—we tend to forget that this is an especially difficult time for American Muslims. At my church, we entered a partnership with a local mosque and took turns having conversations at their place of worship and ours. We ate meals together, laughed together, struggled together. Their imam came and spoke at our church on 9/11 last year.

It has been rumored that the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims is a Copt. This week members of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Muslim Public Affairs council stood together [pictured] at a press conference at Los Angeles City Hall to speak out against the violent reactions to the film taking place in the Middle East.  It was a historic event—the first time these two groups have come out together on an issue in public. Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, spoke in a sober tone to the media. He offered condolences for the loss of life and property around the world at the hands of radical Muslims. He condemned the acts of violence arguing that there should have been no reaction to such a pitiful film. In his opinion, the faithful reaction for a Muslim would have been to, “Say peace and leave.” He called for prudence in exercising free speech—the lack of which has the potential to produce such negative consequences as we’ve seen over the past few days. He pleaded with the general public—that they extend understanding and fight the urge to allow the ignorant actions of a few radical Muslim groups to become the defining image for the Muslim community. Likewise he argued, the Coptic Church shouldn’t be punished for one wayward ex-member who produced a hate film. Dr. Hathout stood alongside Bishop Serapion, head of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, and among colleagues, some holding signs that read, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and, “No to Violence, No to Hate.” The latter sign was held by a young woman wearing a hijab. Together they sent a strong message: radicalism has no place in faith.

These people of faith know what peacemaking is.

As Christians we’re called to get involved in difficult situations, but not in any way we please—in the loving, peacemaking way. Being creative about what that looks like is, for the church, a great challenge and a great opportunity, one that will take all of our faith and our bravery to enact.

—Syd Shook lives in Los Angeles where she is earning a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and attends Hollywood Adventist Church. She co-edits The Hillhurst Review and has worked cross-culturally in community-based development in East Africa and Latin America since 2008 when she served as one of the founding members of a non-profit now called Communities of Hope.

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