Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and so on – we all know that these groups are linked to Islam. The connection is pretty obvious, so many politicians and media types, along with most scholars of religion, describe these groups using terms like “radical Islamic fundamentalists.” However, President Obama, joined by most American Muslims, consistently calls these people “extremists,” without any “Islam/ Muslim” designation. Peace-loving Muslims do not want to be connected to ISIS, so they try to describe this group as something other than Islamic. So, are ISIS and al-Qaeda Muslims, or not?
In the midst of Chrisitan efforts to bring salt and light to the world, and to promote peace and justice for all, getting the terms rights mean a great deal. As I stress regulalry, we must be fair in our judgments! Unfortunately, in modern America we are very quick to call any bad guy connected with Islam, however loosely, “Muslim,” while we avoid calling bad guys with church connections “Christian.” This happens so often and so routinely that we don’t even think about it.
For example, going all the way back to, oh, yesterday, I can find plenty of online articles about Ammon Bundy, who is leading an armed militia occupying federal land. Most Americans, including politicans of all stripes, condemn Mr. Bundy’s actions; we agree that he is doing some bad things. What the media almost universally has neglected to report is that Mr. Bundy identifies himself as a Mormon, and claims that he is being directed by God (skip to minute 4 to hear the start of this; it goes on for quite a while).
Is Bundy acting in accordance with the tenets of Mormonism? Bundy and his followers say “yes,” but Mormon leadership says “no”. From my reading, the media supports the Mormon church perspective to the extent that no one bothers to consider whether Bundy leads a group of “radical Mormons” (no doubt disappointing Mr. Bundy).
Bundy’s group has much in common with ISIS and the other “radical” groups. For all of the talk about our “war” with these groups, we are not “warring” with a nation or nations. Members of ISIS are not citizens fighting for a country; instead, like Bundy’s group, they are volunteers fighting for a cause. To attract and keep such volunteers, leaders of these groups use religion to try to convince their followers that God is on their side. The religion of choice for Bundy is Mormonism (with a healthy dose of his flavor of constitutionalism); for ISIS, it is Islam.
These groups NEED the legitimacy given them by their choice of terms. If they cannot convince their followers and supporters that they are true followers of God, then they risk falling apart quickly. Thus, with respect to ISIS, President Obama and others have adopted the strategy used by Bundy’s opponents: erode legitimacy by denying use of their preferred identity.
President Obama has a great deal of support for his position from the Muslim community in the US, and worldwide. As I noted on facebook a few days ago, a group of 1.5 million Muslims from India, including 70 thousand Muslim clerics, recently declared that ISIS and their ilk are not Muslim. American Muslims tend to agree; for example, the Council on American-Muslim Relations (CAIR) features a strongly worded condemnation of extremism on their website.
Many Christians nevertheless argue that, in light of the obvious connections between ISIS and Islam, we really must label ISIS “Islamic,” even if it pains our American friends. However, if we turn this around, and think about how we might use the term “Christian,” things start to look a little different.
I grew up in conservative “Evangelical” churches in Staten Island, New York, in the 70’s and 80’s. (We did not like the term “fundamentalist” in our neck of the woods). Even though demographers and scholars might have said that Staten Island was 90% Christian, we were pretty sure that no more than 5% of Staten Island residents were “real” Christians. At the time, Staten Island was more than 50% Roman Catholic, but we “knew” that Catholics are not “really” saved. Many members of the churches I went to were ex-Catholics who explained that in Catholicism, one just does stuff, without thinking about what it means.
Evangelicals today are certainly friendlier to Catholics than we once were (many of my old friends would have been horrified to learn that in 2016 we would have six(!) Catholics on the Supreme Court!) Yet we Evangelicals still openly distinguish between people who call themselves Christian, and those who are “real” Christians. I live in both worlds: when I teach religion at John Tyler Community College, I talk about a scholarly definition of the term “Christian,” but when I speak in churches, I am very interested in helping people to become “real” Christians.
Who gets to decide who is a “real” Christian? College professors? Demographers? Politicians? (Perish the thought…) Christians decide who gets to keep that title. You’re not a Christian? You don’t get to vote on the issue. Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, and Muslims might offer opinions, but we Christians decide who is a Christian, and who is not. Period.
Do the Mormon leaders get to decide is a good Mormom? OK by me. Who decides what makes someone a Baptist? Answer: Baptists. So, if our Muslim friends tell us that ISIS is not Muslim, are we Evangelicals going to believe them? Or should we listen to Donald Trump?