My son is spending the next three months in Spain, working on an organic farm. En route to Spain from a beleaguered New York City that has been his home for all of his 18 years, Andrew sent me an e-mail: "Dad, please don't visit any predominantly Islamic country." This from a young man whose father has probably averaged at least three visits per year to "predominantly Islamic countries" for the last 20 years.
In the wake of the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attacks presumably carried out by Muslims who claim their religion as their motivation, all of the old suspicions about, and fears of, Islam have re-emerged, but now with a special urgency.
Some theorists have evoked the dichotomy of Islam versus the West. They argue that the terrorists, and by extension all Muslims, carry an undying enmity for all things western, including democratic institutions, "modernity," and human rights. While Iran's President Mohammad Khatami has called for a "dialogue of civilizations," talk show experts refer blithely to the "war of civilizations."
People who think that I know something about these things have been asking me what boils down to the same question, "Who are these people, and why do they hate us so much?"
Let me begin by stating the obvious, but maybe not so obvious, given the kinds of questions people are asking. Muslims, followers of Islam, are human beings. Some are very religious, and some are more indifferent to their inherited religious tradition. To refer to someone as a Muslim tells us no more, and no less, than referring to someone as a Christian. To find out "who people are," we need to look at each person as a unique individual, shaped in large part by that person's context and history, someone who, to a greater or lesser extent, is trying to make sense of that context and history in the light of religious belief.
A common monotheism
Christians are close to Muslims, as they are to Jews, in our common monotheism. We share a belief in one sovereign God, even though our different linguistic traditions give that God different names in different places. The Arabic word for God, Allah, is the word also used by Arab Christians. Most Muslims will be offended by the formulation, "your God," or "the God of Islam," because they believe that this one God is the source of our common revelation in the Abrahamic tradition. They do believe that the scriptures of Christians and Jews are less complete and accurate because they were written down well after the actual revelation took place; for Muslims, the Quran, the record of God's revelation through the Prophet Muhammad is complete and without flaw. But, because there is one God, there is one revelation of God's will, brought to humanity by a series of prophets, including the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and culminating with Muhammad.
If we are so close, I am sometimes asked, why do we seem so different? Muslims are often seen as angry and vengeful, while Christians speak the language of love. Or so it seems.
Muslims, for example, believe in the duty, when called upon, to participate in jihad, which is often translated as "holy war." The Taliban of Afghanistan, we are told, have declared a jihad against the United States. Jihad, however is a far more complex concept than the simplistic interpretation of "holy war" would suggest. In fact, Jihad, whose basic meaning is "struggle," can be, and has often been, applied to the spiritual struggle to be faithful and to discern the will of God. This personal quest is referred to as "the greater Jihad."
The kind of jihad we hear about, the one that has to do with struggling with the enemies of the faith, is probably better translated to Christian audiences as "the just war." As in the Christian "just war" tradition, there are, in fact, criteria that are to be met before a jihad may be authorized, and once it has been authorized, there are rules of conduct of war that must be adhered to. The enemy must pose a threat to the community; the response to that threat must be proportional; attacks on civilians are forbidden, especially women, children and the elderly; buildings are not to be destroyed; sneak attacks are forbidden.
Are these criteria consistently applied? No more than every "just war" has been proportional, or without civilian victims. What Christian "just war" theories have in common with jihad is the belief that God approves certain kinds of warfare.
During the period leading up to the Gulf War, almost simultaneously President Bush the elder declared, "God is on our side," while Saddam Hussein was calling for a jihad against America. Without intending disrespect to our former president, neither he nor Saddam really were authorized within their own religious traditions to make such declarations about the will of God. President Bush and his Iraqi counterpart were seeking religious justification for political decisions.
Our current President Bush also has invoked God in his comments about the response to the recent terrorist attacks, and even, in an early and really ill-advised comment, referred to our effort as a "crusade." Fortunately, that characterization was subsequently withdrawn. It is, after all, difficult to imagine enlisting the help of Islamic countries in something called a "crusade." All this is to say that Christians and Muslims alike, perhaps because we regard God as important in our lives, tend to want to invoke divine approval for our undertakings, even if those undertakings run contrary to the best of our traditions.
People's experiences crucial
Which brings us back to the second part of that question, "Why do they hate us so much?" Well, actually, most don't. There are different levels of feeling toward the United States, and, by extension, the Christian West, depending pretty much on what people's experiences of us have been.
Many Muslims from abroad, like other immigrants, have sought to create new lives here, to live in peace and prosperity with their neighbors. They have grieved over the recent events with the same intensity of feeling that the rest of us have felt. How they are treated in the wake of the attacks will affect not only their perception of American society, but also the perceptions of friends and families in their countries of origin.
Others have felt themselves to be victimized by American policy, particularly the Palestinians and the Iraqis, but their plight is felt throughout the Islamic world, again, with varying levels of intensity.
Earlier, in my career as Middle East Area Executive with the United Church Board for World Ministries, I exchanged correspondence with a member of the UCC who worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency. He had taken issue with something I had written, and in the course of our exchange of letters, he wrote that in the long run, the Arabs will have no alternative but to ally themselves with the United States. The Soviet Union was already in decline, in part because of their ill-fated venture in Afghanistan, and there were simply no other options left. It is precisely when people feel that they have no real options that they do extreme things.
Almost everyone I met in the Middle East over the years made the distinction between me as an individual American and the policies and behavior of my government. I think this is why, aside from some isolated incidents among the Palestinians, there was an overwhelming sympathy for the losses sustained by American families in the attacks on New York and Washington.
That doesn't mean that criticism of the United States will abate in the aftermath of these events, but it represents a basic belief that innocents should not suffer because their government makes bad decisions.
Clearly, for some, however, a line has been crossed, and a whole society is regarded as fair game. Our ability to distinguish between these relatively few extremists and our potential friends in the Middle East will determine whether al-Qa'ida is the wave of the future, or a passing, if horribly destructive, phenomenon. An American response that extends the circle of victimization is, most likely, the terrorists' real goal. One can only hope that our government will not follow the script that extremists have written for us.
A matter of faith
How we define our interests, to put it bluntly, must stand the test of our faith. A Muslim critique, certainly not the only one, of "western Christian society," is that we no longer regard faith to be important enough to have an impact on how we behave as individuals or as a society. The crisis facing us in the wake of these awful events is, I believe, not a crisis of military capability or of financial resilience, it is one of faith.
Do we believe that our faith provides answers as to how we are to conduct ourselves in the world? Or is our faith a privatized and part-time matter? If we believe the former, we will need to come to terms critically not only with how we respond to these current outrages, but also with how we respond to a world in which such desperate disparity exists between those who have and those who have not; between those who exercise power and those who are on its receiving end.
This isn't a matter of politics, although it has political consequences. It really is a matter of faith.
Dale Bishop is Executive Minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and a member of the Collegium of Officers. For 22 years he was the Middle East Area Executive for the UCC. For three of those years, he also performed the same role for the National Council of Churches.