Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims

ISIS: “Real” Muslims, or Frauds?

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?

5 comments on “ISIS: “Real” Muslims, or Frauds?

  1. Fred
    January 5, 2016

    I hear what you are saying, John, but I still have to label them as Islamic extremists, because they are not anything else. I do not believe that moderate Muslims agree with what the terrorists do, but the terrorists’ world view and beliefs are Islamic. Our war is not with Islam as a whole, but with that version of Islam that promotes terror. Imam Anjem Choudary is an example of this. I think the POTUS has done our country a disservice by not specifically identifying ISIS as a sect that practices extreme Islam.


  2. John Herbst
    January 5, 2016

    Fred, thanks for your thoughtful input. My point is that Christians must be scrupulously fair when we use labels; the whole “log in the eye” thing from Matthew 7:1-5. In some other context, Fred, you’d be telling me that it is much more important for Christians to get ourselves right, than to try to get others (Muslims) to improve.

    One of the problems is that I don’t quite know what you mean by “Islamic.” Most Muslims (including CAIR and the Indians I referenced in the post) say that Choudary and ISIS are practicing something other than Islam, and that a world view that justifies killing innocent people most certainly is, at the most basic, fundamental level, NOT “Islamic” (extreme or otherwise). I can introduce you to Muslims on the Peninsula who will say the same thing. So on what basis exactly do you and I get to tell the large Muslim majority that they do not define “Islamic” properly? And when Muslims consider American-style social problems, like racism and poverty, huge numbers of broken families, ridiculous levels of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and internet porn, and so on, do they get to call these “Christian” just because some church folk engage in and facilitate or even support all of these?

    Let’s carefully define our terms, then be consistent. If ISIS is “Islamic,” then fairness dictates that we need to swallow hard and label a whole bunch of bad stuff “Christian.”


  3. Mike
    January 7, 2016

    You raise a very good point: who determines the perspective that a particular group is part of? The problem I have is when people who identify with a particular religious ideology assert that others who reach differing conclusions but also appear to identify with that same ideology are NOT real members. For example, you brought up the fact that many evangelicals do not believe Catholics are real Christians. In contrast, I would argue that despite difference with evangelicals Catholics are Christian because: (1) Catholics identify as Christians subjectively speaking, and (2) they accept principles which historically and theologically have been identified as Christian (example: the belief that Jesus is the Messiah and died for the sins of the world).

    In line with this, I would argue that both nonviolent Muslims and members of ISIS are Islamic in some form: they just interpret the Koran very differently based on certain starting presuppositions and thus reach drastically different conclusions. Based on this, Islam is NOT an inherently violent religion as many conservative Christians like Donald Trump and others are saying though some radical subgroups within Islam are.

    Despite this, I agree with President Obama’s decision to not refer to ISIS as an Islamic extremist group. Why? Because despite my arguments many backwards and ignorant conservatives will make the assumption that because they’re Muslim extremists, the rest of Islam is somehow connected to them. This can (and has in past) led to violence and widespread bigotry against Islam as a whole–something that is very wrong and dangerous.


    • John Herbst
      January 8, 2016

      Mike, thanks for your thoughts! I don’t necessarily mind it when Christians label ISIS “Islamic,” just as long as we are willing to identify Robert Dear, Ammon Bundy and a whole host of unpleasant people and ideas “Christian.” If ISIS is “Islamic,” then Bundy and Dear should be identified as “Christian” on the same grounds.


  4. Pingback: Christians and the Jerusalem Truck Attack – christianguidetoislamdotcom

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2016 by .
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