A Time to Stand with our Muslim Neighbors

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“He is a lovable man, and loves also learning when he finds it in other people.”

Patriarch Timothy of Baghdad speaking of Caliph[1] Mahdi, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate.[2] Coakley, John W. & Sterk, Andrea, Readings in World Christian History, Volume I (Orbis Books 4th ed. 2007), p. 231.

The Abbasid caliphate was founded by descendants of the prophet Muhammad’s youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. Its capital was established at Baghdad in 762 C.E. and it flourished for two centuries thereafter. Timothy was patriarch of the Persian Church of the East. He moved his residence to Bagdad shortly after Mahadi became caliph. The two leaders appear to have been good friends who conferred together frequently over affairs of state and engaged in theological discussions as well. We know all of this because Timothy wrote and circulated an account of one of these interchanges between them that has been preserved to this day. That account documents a lengthy discussion between Timothy and Mahadi about the nature of God from the perspective of the Gospels and the Koran. Mahadi is particularly perplexed about the doctrine of the Trinity and cannot understand how Christians can confess that “God is one” and yet maintain that God has a son. Timothy uses arguments both from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Koran to explain the Church’s Trinitarian faith. Though Mahadi remains unconvinced by Timothy’s arguments, the two men display a remarkable degree of respect for one another’s faith traditions. Timothy remarks to Mahadi, “Muhammad is worthy of all praise, by all reasonable people…He walked in the path of the prophets, and trod in the track of lovers of God.” Ibid.  The discussion ends with Timothy returning in peace to his patriarchal residence.

I thought it important to share this bit of our Christian heritage because it illustrates that from a very early period and throughout most of subsequent history, Christians and Muslims have lived together in various parts of the world in peace despite their very pronounced theological differences. That has not always been the case. Violence between our two faith communities has occurred over the centuries with distressing frequency to the shame of both. It is pointless to argue over who initiated each one of these various conflicts, who had the better claim and whose transgressions were the more blameworthy. Suffice to say that there is enough blood on the hands of all to bring us both under the judgment of our respective teachings. That said, it bears repeating: violence has been the exception rather than the rule for most of our common trek through history. This is particularly so for the United States where Muslims have been a documented part of our history from as early as the 1850s. Two Muslims are known to have served as officers of the Union Army in the Civil War. Beginning in the 1880s, Muslims began immigrating to the United States in significant numbers. Construction of mosques, beginning in 1915, picked up in the 1920s and by 1952 there were over 20 mosques throughout the United States. During this time Muslims established several charitable organizations for the purpose of aiding new Muslim immigrants and assisting them with finding housing, getting work and learning English. Though their numbers have increased in recent years, Muslims are hardly new comers to the American scene. The Mosque has been a productive part of American society and a peaceful neighbor to the American Church a good century.

Last Saturday, June 10th,  ACT for America, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest and most influential national security grassroots advocacy organization with over 750,000 members,” organized marches in more than two dozen cities calling for a ban against the enactment of Sharia law in the United States. The group maintains that “Sharia is incompatible with Western democracy and the freedoms it affords.” Marchers at the June 10th events carried signs with messages such as “Sharia = ISIS” and “Sharia laws are the laws of devils.” These expressions of hatred and intolerance ought to sadden us all. This is not the America I was raised to love and honor. We are not a people driven by blind fear and prejudice. We are a nation of laws and justice. That is why ACT and its hateful rhetoric must be answered.

ACT’s fears are irrational for two reasons. First, Sharia is not a legal system. The meaning of this Arabic word is literally “the way” or “the way to the watering hole.” Sharia spells out the overall way of life for Muslims as it was understood and practiced in accord with early interpretations of the Koran. It is not considered divinely inspired as is the Koran and is therefore subject to reinterpretation and reapplication to ever changing conditions. Second, there has been no enactment of Sharia in the United States to date. Furthermore, there is virtually no chance any legal mandate promoting religious practices of Islam or any other faith could ever be enacted. Even if, by some strange turn of events, such a law were to pass a state legislature or be implemented by a county or municipal government, it would never survive judicial review. Enacting a statute banning Sharia law is therefore about as silly as passing a law against Martian immigration.

All of this hysteria over Sharia must be unmasked for what it really is: xenophobia, that is, the fear of foreigners generally and fear of Islam specifically. ACT is feeding the persistent meme that Islam is a religion of violence bent on dominating the rest of the world. It is true that Sharia prescribes harsh punishments for acts like adultery, but many such penalties are also found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Similarly, there is no question that the Koran contains violent passages and vividly violent images. But, once again, the same is true for the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The Book of Joshua, for example, recounts a divinely sanctioned campaign of extermination against the inhabitants of Canaan. The New Testament book of Revelation subjects the entire earth to a blood bath with a body count higher than the whole of the Koran and Hebrew Scriptures combined. Tragically, all three of these holy books have been used to rationalize violence and bloodletting. Such instances remind us that, as people of faith, we have a solemn obligation, Muslim and Christian alike, to speak up when our scriptures are being misinterpreted and employed to justify evil conduct. But that obligation can only be taken so far. In the final analysis, we cannot control what people do and say with our scriptures. American Muslim communities can no more be expected to know about and denounce every threat made by anyone anywhere in the world claiming to speak for Islam than can American Christians be expected to correct every outlandish remark made on television, radio or the internet by every whackadoodle claiming to speak in the name of Christianity or the Bible. Both religions are plagued by groups and individuals, over which they exercise no control, who try to exploit their teachings to advance particular political and ideological agendas. Such persons are few, however, and their voices disproportionately noisy. Moreover, they are usually well beyond the influence of mainstream believers. Consequently, it makes no more sense to subject American Muslims to increased scrutiny for the crimes and rhetoric of Al Qaeda and ISIS than it would have made sense two decades ago to conduct hearings investigating American Catholics for the atrocities committed by the Irish Republican Army.

Our obligation to our Muslim sisters and brothers is clearly set forth in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism where Luther discusses the meaning of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness.” According to Luther, this means that “[w]e should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” The claim that Islam is a religion of violence, that Muslims are inherently prone to terrorism or that Muslims are contriving to bring us all under some sort of repressive theocracy by legislating Sharia is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. It goes without saying that we should not be repeating these assertions or giving them any credence. Beyond that, we need to speak well of and defend our Muslim neighbors when we hear them so defamed.

So now we come to the purpose of this article. As you no doubt already know, FBI statistics show a spike in the number of bias crimes against Muslims over the last two years. Events such as the June 10th ACT march are known to encourage such violence. According to the Brookings institute, 42% of all Americans hold an “unfavorable” view of Muslims. This is a sad commentary on the state of a country founded on principles of religious freedom, tolerance and equality. But by my calculations, this article will reach about 200 of you. No, I am not asking you to forward, share or  re-post this article. Instead, I am asking that you talk to someone and put in a good word for your Muslim neighbor. That’s all. If each of you can talk to at least two people this week, we are already up to 600. If each of those 600 could do the same-well, you get the picture. Changing public opinion is like changing the course of an aircraft carrier. It will not happen immediately, but it can happen over time. Each incremental push in the right direction is important.  So push! Pastor Olsen.

[1] A “caliph” is a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam.

[2] A “caliphate” is a jurisdiction or kingdom ruled by a caliph.

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