It’s been a bad month for the Islamic community. Two tragedies, within two weeks of each other, have resulted in the deaths of almost a thousand pilgrims in Mecca. First, on September 11th, a crane collapsed through the roof of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site. 118 people were crushed to death, and 394 more injured. Then on the 24th, during the Hajj (the annual mass pilgrimage), 717 were killed during a stampede in a crowded street. Authorities estimate that many of the almost 900 wounded will die from their injuries in the coming days.
These tragedies have shaken the Muslim world, but they have not concerned many Americans. In fact, quite the contrary: a large portion of American Christians welcomed these events as the judgement of God on Islam, in retribution for the 9/11 bombings and other atrocities. I saw this reaction firsthand when I went on Facebook the day after the crane collapse. Several of my Facebook friends, many of whom claim Christ, had posted some very hateful things in the wake of the tragedy. I was deeply saddened to see this, and began to wonder why some Christians and other Americans act so hateful of Muslims.
Vanguard University Anthropology Professor, Dr. Adam Ayers thinks a major reason is the way that the media portrays Islam and Muslims. According to him, Muslims are often represented in the media as “anti-American and anti-Christian threats.” He pointed out that the media often only shows us the very worst of Islam: bombings, beheadings, warfare, etc. These acts are carried out by a very small, radical portion of Muslims (think Islamic State and Boko Haram) and are not representative of the entire Islamic community. Many critics of Islam argue that radical groups like IS are not actually radical at all, and are simply following the teachings of the Qu’ran. I would like to respectfully point out that it is not our place, as outsiders, to define what is or is not a correct interpretation of Islam. In the same way it would be inappropriate for Saudi Muslims to decide which Christian denominations are theologically sound and which are deviant. That is for the Christian Church to decide.
With this understanding of allowing Islam to define its own position, let’s briefly examine how the Islamic community as a whole has responded to the Islamic State and its teachings. According to Reuters, in 2014 the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the highest religious authority in the country, decried IS as being “un-islamic.” In a statement he released, the Grand Mufti stated in reference to IS that “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilisation, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims.”
Additionally, the Huffington Post reported in 2014 that more than 120 Muslim scholars, primarily Imams and professors, signed an 18 page open letter to IS in which they systematically pick apart and refute the theology of IS. The letter claims that IS has “…misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder … this is a great wrong and an offense to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world.”
In addition to these declarations from scholars and clerics, every single Islamic nation has decried IS, including Shi’ite Iran, which tends to have much more radical views than its Sunni counterparts. As well as denouncing IS, many of these nations are actively participating in the military campaign to destroy it. So if we believe that people groups have the right to define their own terms and theology, and that outsiders do not, then it would appear that organizations like IS and Boko Haram are indeed splinter sects that do not fall under the umbrella of Islam.
So what about the media portrayals of Muslims as being “anti-American and anti-Christian threats?” Dr. Ayers points out that these monikers are not accurate. The Qu’ran teaches multiple time that Christians are to be treated with respect, for they are “People of the Book,” meaning that they have received previous revelations from God.
Dr. Ayers also said that calling Muslims anti-American is inaccurate. He argues that many of them are opposed to America’s “culturally entitled” view of the Middle East, and are offended by our attempts to establish Western-style democracies that separate church and state. Islam and the West are opposed to each other in that the West is secular, is focused on the economic and political, and believes in the separation of Church and State. Islam, on the other hand, teaches that church and state should be linked, and that governments should focus on the spiritual before the economic/political. However, this does not make most Muslims “anti-American.” On the contrary, many Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan) have been close allies of the United States for decades.
Dr. Ayers asks Christians to view media representation of Muslims with the same amount of scrutiny and suspicion as we do media portrayals of conservative Christians. He points out that with so much of today’s media being “pejorative and guided by political ideology,” Islam is misrepresented just as often as Christianity. As conservative Christians are often represented as racist and uneducated, Muslims are often represented as radical and murderous. According to Dr. Ayers, both of these representations are inaccurate and do not do justice to either religion.
I gently urge my fellow Christians to approach Islam with an open mind, and an open heart. Yes, be as shrewd as a serpent, but be loving as well. If you approach any entity with a predetermined bias, you will only view the entity through the lens of that bias. This will distort your view, and these biases can often become self-fulfilling prophecies. We often see only what we are looking for. If we as Christians are ever going to have meaningful interactions with Muslims, interactions that might lead to conversion, then we have to let go of our biases towards Islam and establish a common ground. Above all, we should love Muslims. Radical or not, extremist or not, Jesus commands us to love. Not to glory in the deaths of unbelievers, or view other people with hatred and suspicion but to love.
With that in mind, please join me in praying for Mecca; for the dead and injured, for the families of the victims, and for the Islamic community as a whole.