Blaming Muslims: why Christians must take the lead in fighting Islamophobia
In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks on Paris, Britain's leading tabloid newspaper ran a highly-provocative leader column. The Sun called on British Muslims to march through the streets of London with placards saying "Not in my name", to demonstrate their contempt for those who chose to commit the atrocities. "Muslims have been quick to protest if their faith has come under attack," it said, "yet they have done too little in public to express solidarity with the victims in Paris."
I'm struggling to remember whether they made a similar call to Christians, when Anders Breivik killed 76 people in Norway, or to atheists when Chris Harper Mercer executed young people in an Oregon Community college on the basis of their faith. I'm fairly sure they didn't. Yet when the perpetrators are Muslims, the rules seem to change. So while The Sun purported to be speaking out to prevent Islamophobia, it was of course entirely reinforcing a problem which threatens to create fault lines in multicultural societies everywhere.
There are extreme examples of the proponents of Islamophobia; far-right politicians taking to social media to blame Islam and its adherents for the rise of terrorism. But among the general population, there are also plenty of people who might be politically middle-of-the-road but hold serious concerns or suspicions about Muslims; media coverage like that Sun editorial only help to fan their flames.
On the whole, Christians don't seem to be in a particularly different place. Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV show, which airs on Christian networks across the US and UK, never misses an opportunity to pair the word 'terrorist' with the word 'Islamic', almost as if to make the point that their religion is always relevant to their action. And on social media, many Christians are quick to point out the faith of the perpetrators of certain atrocities, and use this as a springboard to denounce Islam; sometimes with the kind of ranting heavy-handedness which hardly glorifies their own God. The net result: a growing sense both inside and outside the church that Islam is something to be feared, contained; even fought.
At the root of this is the claim that the Qur'an legislates for and even commands acts of terror. It's absolutely true that certain verses do give that impression. Take Qur'an 2 v 191, which says in one translation, "kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out." The verses around it however, talk about the ethics of combat, the mercy and forgiveness of God, and fighting only until the end of religious persecution. I'm no Islamic scholar, but it seems to me that the correct interpretation is therefore a little more complicated than a carte blanche to kill.
Of course, exactly the same kinds of verses appear in the Bible. Taken out of context, they're often used by our detractors to make God and the Bible appear ridiculous; monstrous even. Exodus 22:20 says that "whoever sacrifices to any God, except the Lord must be destroyed." That verse, which can be supported by several others in the Old Testament, essentially seems to advocate exactly the same kind of religious 'Jihad' of which we can accuse so many Muslims.
So what's the answer? Are we both as bad as each other, and simply tiptoeing around a Holy War which we're both being called to? Or is it just more complicated than that? Is Islam, just like Christianity, actually a religion of peace with some problematic holy texts which require great theologians to interpret them?
I think Christians have far more in common with the Muslim community than we do with those who don't have a faith. So as Islamophobia continues to spread throughout the West, I think there are a number reasons why Christians shouldn't just abstain from it, but be at the forefront of fighting back.
Grace and love aren't limited
At a most basic level, Christians are called to be people of peace, love and compassion to all, without exception. Jesus simply doesn't place limits on who we're to serve; on whose needs we're to put ahead of our own. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is the most famous example of how Jesus blows apart traditional ideas of tribalism by suggesting that a man of a different nationality and religion is a better neighbour to an injured Jew than his peers who walk on by. The normal people who we pass every day – the cleaners, teachers, nurses, bankers, footballers and politicians in every walk of life – who also happen to be Muslims, deserve a bit more love from us than our silence in a growing culture of Islamophobia. As they become victims of injustice, the Bible tells us that we're to stand up for them and alongside them (Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 82:3 etc).
We should empathise
Christians of all people should know what it's like to feel tarred with the same brush as our most radical and extreme elements. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the average Muslim right now, we might realise that they're currently being judged on the sort of basis that sees Westboro Baptist Church held up as a model for Christianity. Imagine how we might feel if a group set up and called itself 'Christian State', and declared that it had been called by God to judge sin, enforce Christian morality and forcibly establish the Kingdom of God on earth? After all, Jesus himself said 'I have not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34).' We should be brave enough to point out to others that theological breadth always means extremes exist; but that does not make them representative of a true faith, even if they can find a few proof texts to back up their ideology.
Breaking the cycle
Finally, while it's true that all Muslims simply cannot be painted as murderous extremists, it's also absolutely true that many murderous extremists are Muslims. We have to acknowledge this, but we can ask if the reason is a little more complex that a strict adherence to the Qur'an. While the Islamic holy book might be used to justify terrorist attacks, it rarely seems to motivate them. Rather, those who join terrorist groups often do so in reaction to the results of Western foreign policy, or because their homes and schools have been destroyed, or their families killed in drone strikes. We find the idea that we might be complicit in radicalisation offensive because it's so hard to swallow, but once again, the story is just more complicated than an evil religion motivating evil men to do evil. Christians are often silent about this complexity, perhaps because we think that the narrative of an evil Islam is somehow advantageous to Christian evangelisation.
So here's something really radical. Two days after the Paris attacks, the Australian pastor and peace campaigner Jarrod McKenna said something fairly extraordinary in his Sunday sermon:
"It's harder to kill you, If you've gone out and built their homes. It's harder to kill you, if you have helped them with their kids. It's harder to kill you if you have put them through a programme that is helping them gain meaningful employment. If you want ISIS to win, keep vilifying and stereotyping all Muslims. Keep perpetuating this violence against Muslims. That kind of hatred just helps radicalise disenfranchised youth. We need to love our Muslim neighbours."
What McKenna bravely does is both acknowledge the problem, and advocate an approach which breaks the cycle of violence and hatred. His final line might seem provocative, but in fact he's right – the change and the process of reconciliation does indeed start at home. While Christians should absolutely be calling on their governments to help and 'love' communities far from our shores, we demonstrate our beliefs in the way that we practise them among the people we meet every day.
So here's the really difficult question – and the one which might tangibly move us toward combatting islamophobia: what are your relationships like with Muslims in your community? At a broad, inter-faith relations level the picture might be improving, but how many of us have really built meaningful friendships with Muslims? Let's be honest, many of us would never even think of doing that.
Perhaps the first step in fighting against the tide of fear and misinformation around Islam, and in turn in loving our Muslim neighbours, is simply to get to know some. Islamophobia is enabled by cultural distance; in coming to earth as a man and tearing up the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, Jesus modelled the overthrowing of that kind of barrier. Right now the world needs more peacemakers; Jesus liked them too. Let's stand against a climate of fear, and beat it by loving unconditionally just like Him.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Thanks to Tim Fawsett, CEO of interfaith project The Feast for his invaluable help in writing this article.