What are Christians supposed to believe about Islam? And why does it matter?
Judging from President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech last June the proper attitude toward Islam should be one of great respect. Obama paid Islam the respect of referring to the Koran as the “Holy Koran,” of accepting the Islamic claim that Islam is a “revealed” religion, and, apparently, of subscribing to the Muslim belief that Jesus (“peace be upon him”) was no more than a prophet. Apart from those who believe in Obama’s messiahship, however, most Christians don’t take their doctrinal cues from the president. But what is the result when acknowledged Christian leaders lend, or seem to lend, credence to Islam?
Like Obama, many Christian leaders seem intent on finding common ground with Islam. But if, in reality, there is little common ground between Islam and Christianity, Christians will find not only that they have been misinformed but also that they have been put at a decided disadvantage vis-À-vis Islam.
Two years ago, more than 300 prominent Christian leaders signed a letter (which appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times) seeking “reconciliation” and “common ground” with Islam. After asking “forgiveness of the All-Merciful One” for the Crusades and other Christian sins, the letter speaks of “deep affinities” and “common ground” between the two faiths, although the only common ground that’s ever specified in the lengthy statement is “love of God and neighbor.” And even here it’s questionable if there is common ground since “love of neighbor” in Islamic teaching only extends to other Muslims.
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI also stressed the common ground between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Speaking to Muslim leaders in May at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Pope observed: “Here the paths of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common. Each believes in One God, creator and ruler of all. Each recognizes Abraham as a forefather, a man of faith upon whom God bestowed a special blessing. Each has gained a large following throughout the centuries and inspired a rich spiritual, intellectual, and cultural patrimony.”
Yes, broadly speaking, but that’s the problem—it’s difficult to get beyond generalities when speaking of our common ground with Islam. Moreover, a large chunk of this commonality disappears when one considers that the Catholic Church does not, after all, accept the claim that Muhammad received a revelation from God. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its cryptic discussion of the Church’s relationship with Muslims, takes pains to note that Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham” (my emphasis), which is a little like saying that North Korea professes to be a republic.
In his defense, it should be kept in mind that the Pope has to choose his words carefully, especially in speaking to a Muslim audience. There are millions of Christians living in the Muslim world, and an ill-considered word could put them in mortal danger. Moreover, the Pope used the occasion as a teaching opportunity by pointing out to his Muslim listeners that because all humans are created by the One God, all are “fundamentally interrelated”— in effect, the oneness of God implies the unity of humanity, and therefore the rights of all should be protected. Whether or not the Muslim leaders took the message to heart, it is still the kind of thing they need to hear.
Yet, at the same time, there is something troubling about the other part of the Pope’s talk—the commonground- with-Islam part. The use of words such as “common,” “share,” “great,” and “rich” lend a certain legitimacy to Islam. It makes it look as though Islam were a member in good standing of the club of world religions. When Notre Dame officials conferred commencement honors on President Obama in May, they used the seeking-common-ground defense as a justification. Critics, however, rightly argued that the university was lending legitimacy to Obama’s proabortion stance and, in the process, sowing confusion about the Catholic Church’s moral teaching. But it can be argued that the Pope’s emphasis on the common ground shared by Islam and Christianity might have a similar effect. As with the Notre Dame affair, such “legitimizing” of a worldview that is essentially hostile to Christianity is likely to sow the seeds of confusion.
The issue here is not so much the effect on Muslims, but the effect on Christians. Even if the Pope was addressing a Muslim audience, Christians were also listening—if only, in most cases, to the boiled-down media translation: “Pope says he has ‘great respect’ for Islam.” Most Catholics— to mention the flock most directly concerned—don’t pay close attention to papal addresses in far away places, but they do pay enough attention to get a general impression; and the general impression conveyed by the Pope’s Middle East visit is something along the lines of, “The pope’s OK with Islam.” From which the average Catholic might conclude, “So I guess I can be too.”
Meanwhile, on the grade school level, Catholic children are learning the beginner’s version of “We’re OK and you’re OK.” Catholic publisher Pauline Books’ contribution to this effort is My Muslim Friend—a book which it hopes will give Catholic children, their parents, and their teachers “a new understanding and appreciation of Islam.” My Muslim Friend does deal with some differences between Islam and Christianity, but the reader soon finds that commonalities trump differences by a wide margin. The two friends in the story are like peas in a pod. Mary goes to church, Aisha goes to mosque; Mary has her rosary beads, Aisha has her prayer beads. Mary believes in one God, so does Aisha; Mary’s church reveres the Virgin Mary, Aisha’s faith has reverence for Mary, as well. Aisha is forced to marry her first cousin back in Pakistan…well, no. As you might expect, nothing is allowed to disrupt the pleasant parallels.
A child reading this book will come away with the impression that the things we have in common are more important than the things that separate us. And, by implication, he learns that the things that separate us don’t constitute a threat to our peaceful co-existence. That is the basic message that appeals to commonality convey. It sounds nice in theory, but in practice Christians don’t fare well in Muslim majority countries. Millions of Christians in Africa have been killed by Muslims in the last two decades, and millions more in other parts of the world have been the victims of persecution at the hands of Muslims. According to World Council of Churches figures, the number of Christians in the Middle East (excluding Egypt) has declined from 12 million to about 2 million in the last decade as a result of Christians fleeing their homelands. Instead of finding common ground, Middle East Christians find that they are losing ground—in the most literal sense.
On closer examination, the common ground that Christians share with Islam looks more like thin ice. Yes, both believe in the one God, both believe in an afterlife, and both claim Abraham as a forefather. But what’s the common ground on jihad? On the equality of men and women? On slavery? On amputation for theft? On the fate of apostates? On the status of dhimmis?
One would think that the most important thing for Christians to know about Islam is not that Islam is a fellow monotheistic religion, but that Islam requires its faithful to work toward the eventual subjugation of Christians. Whenever Islam gets the upper hand subjugation becomes the order of the day. Until November 2003 the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington carried this statement on its website: “The Muslims are required to raise the banner of jihad in order to make the Word of Allah supreme in this world.” The statement has since been removed, but the harsh restrictions on Christians living in or even visiting Saudi Arabia have not been. Christians are similarly suppressed throughout the Middle East. It’s easy to find common ground with Islam in the abstract, but on the real ground—that is, on the terra firma of places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan—Christians know a different reality.
During the Notre Dame imbroglio, both the president of Notre Dame and the president of the United States solemnly invoked the doctrine of “learning to respect our differences.” And the same doctrine is being proffered as the correct Christian response to Islam. Yet the frequency with which the incantation is uttered shouldn’t blind us to the reality that beyond a certain point, “respecting differences” is a nonsensical formula. Respecting differences is not a new idea but, at least in times past, people understood that there were limits to respect. During World War II the leaders of the US and UK were not known to say things like, “We disagree with Herr Hitler on the matter of the extermination of the Jews, but we must learn to respect our differences.” If differences are minor then, yes, it’s usually a good policy to respect difference, but if one of the differences between you and the other party is that he intends to subjugate you or eliminate you, then it’s foolish to talk about respecting his beliefs.
Despite his recent overemphasis on Christian commonality with Islam, the Pope understands that respect for differences can only be up to a point. And thus—as best as I can determine—he has never said that he has “deep respect for Islam.” He has said that he has “deep respect for Muslims,” and one Vatican statement spoke of the Pope’s “respect and esteem for those who profess Islam,” but only in the mind of the media has he expressed deep respect for Islam itself. It doesn’t make sense for a Christian to express deep respect for a religion that is built on the negation of core Christian beliefs.
This distinction between the belief system and the believer seems to be lost on other Christian leaders, however; for example, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have recently called for the creation of Islamic prayer rooms in all Catholic schools in the UK. What will be the result of this experiment? It’s hard to know, but let’s hazard a guess and say that, at the least, it will be confusing for the Catholic students. “Exactly what,” they might ask themselves, “does my faith stand for besides openness?” In the process of teaching an unlimited respect for others, does the Church end up losing respect? After all, even in today’s permissive culture, one tends to lose respect for the person who is open to every sort of relationship.
Too much emphasis on respecting diversity makes it difficult to believe that the Catholic Church is really serious about its own beliefs, and therefore students may logically conclude that they don’t have to take these beliefs seriously either. And—when the going gets tough—Catholics might well conclude that these beliefs aren’t worth defending. After all, if religions have so much in common, then what’s the difference? If there are many roads to heaven, then maybe it’s not that important which one you take. If students gain the impression that there is no substantial difference between Christianity and Islam, they might prudentially decide to align themselves with the faith that’s confident and on the rise.
In England, of course, that faith would be Islam. Britain’s Office of National Statistics reports that the Muslim population of England is growing 10 times faster than the general population. An earlier report predicted that by 2050 Christian churchgoers in England will be outnumbered three to one by Muslims. One has to wonder: once the Muslims start taking over the Catholic schools in England will they set aside special prayer rooms for the Catholics?
Will Christians in Europe and, eventually, Christians in the US someday find themselves in the precarious position that Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine now occupy? It seems only fair that Christians be alerted to this possibility. Too many Christian leaders are issuing make-up calls (“We apologize for the Crusades”) when they ought to be issuing wake-up calls.
So, yes, Christians and Muslims share a common humanity, but is that all we need to know? For instance, how many Christians know that the 57 nationstrong Organization of the Islamic Conference, with the help of the United Nations, is making rapid progress in its efforts to criminalize criticism of Islam? In many parts of the world, including several Western nations, it’s already a crime to defame Islam. Writers in places as diverse as Canada, Italy, France, and India have gone on trial for the offense of offending Islam. If you’re not the offending type you may think you have nothing to worry about, but think again. Christianity itself is inherently a criticism of Islam’s claim to have the final revelation. Muslim authorities are quite clear on the point that Christians are guilty of falsifying Allah’s revelation. So if you live in a place where the new defamation laws will be enacted, and you happen to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, you might want to keep it to yourself.
We are entering into a new and dangerous stage of history. By reason of their sentimental education in comparative religions, most Christians are ill prepared for it. Recently, a friend of mine was turned away from a Muslim-owned parking garage in Washington, DC because of the “offensive” rosary beads hanging from her car’s inside mirror. It’s lucky she wasn’t trying to find a parking space in Riyadh. Multiply that incident by a thousand similar ones occurring daily across the globe, and you will have a much truer picture of the relationship between Islam and Christianity than that presented in the apologetic letter signed by the 300 Christian leaders.
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