Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
As we all know, when Americans think about Islam, we see Danger. Terrorist attacks by groups claiming to be Muslim have captured our attention. Unfortunately, it pays for politicians and media to exaggerate the real threats: screaming about the perilous “other guys” is a great way to get attention. Yet, as I’ve shown before, not only are we very safe from the majority of Muslims who stress that Islam forbids harming innocent people, we also have little to fear from the “bad guy” groups – ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on.
Contrary to what many teach and assume, none of these groups advocate military conquest of the USA, or the West in general. I do not know of any extremist groups which espouse the conquest of America as a major goal. Instead, they are much more interested in converting (by persuasion or force) the residents of Muslim lands to their version of Islam. The point of terrorist attacks in the USA and Europe is not to conquer but to influence policy. ISIS is not trying to take over America by force; instead, it wants America and the west to exit historic “Muslim” lands.
What lands do the bad guys consider “Muslim”? Essentially, this is the land captured by Muslims in the early years of Islam between 622 and 750 AD. In a little over 100 years, Muslim armies essentially conquered the Sassanid (Persian) Empire, while taking control of large parts of the Byzantine Empire.The huge gain of territory over a relatively short time period, accomplished mostly by previously disorganized Arabs, ranks as one of the greatest military achievements in the history of the world.
Military historians struggle to account for this fantastic success. But for Muslims, the explanation is simple: God gave Muslims these lands. Muslims interpret this period of time in the same way that we Christians read the Old Testament book of Joshua: as God gave the land of Canaan to Israel in 1400 BC, so also in the eighth century AD he gave the lands of North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia to Muslims.
Muslims of course have always debated among themselves how this land should be administered (just as Christians debate how it is we should run our churches). But almost all extremist organizations, including ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on, take the position that historic Muslim lands must be “cleansed” from Christian influence, just as the Israelites “cleansed” Israel from Canaan influence in the book of Joshua.
As a Christian, I accept Joshua as part of the Bible. But if someone argues, based on Joshua, that Christians should kill Canaanites, I would label this view “not Christian” – just as my Jewish friends label the idea of Jews exterminating non-Jews as “not Jewish.” Despite what Joshua says, Christians and Jews almost universally teach that God abhors the killing of people just because they are members of some other religion or race. And despite Islamic history, Muslims also teach that God will not condone killing based on race or religion.
The problem in the modern era results from Western influence on historic Muslim territory. Most important here, by far, is Israel. (Muslims prefer to refer to this by its historic name, “Palestine,” but for the sake of clear presenation, I will use “Israel.”) Ever since the mid-seventh century AD, Muslims have thought of Israel as Muslim territory. Muslims believe that God took this land from the Christians (who had controlled it from the time the Roman Empire became Christian), and gave it to Muslims, for all time. And, indeed, with one exception, Israel was ruled by Muslims from the seventh century until 1917, when the British captured it from the Ottoman Empire toward the end of World War 1. Eventually the British, with strong support from the United States, gave what we know as Israel to the Jewish people.
The one exception occurred during the era of the Crusades, when Christians took Israel from the Muslims, setting up a Christian state. Muslims believe that it was only with God’s help that they were eventually able to “liberate” Israel from Christian dominance and return it to Islamic rule.
This bit of history fuels one of the extremists’ main demands: the elimination of Israel. From the extremist point of view, Israel represents a repeat of the events of the Crusades. Christians (the British) captured Israel during World War 1, then turned it into a state ruled by Jews, supported by other Christians (primarily the United States). In the Middle Ages it took 200 years for God to help Muslims return Israel to Muslim rule. How long will it take today?
As a Christian, I support the idea of the State of Israel, and I’m glad that the USA supports it as well. Anti-Semitism is real, so the world needs a place for Jewish people to go when things get difficult. However, the idea of a Jewish state in Muslim territory is a problem for Muslims. Muslims are not necessarily opposed to the idea of a country for Jewish people to find refuge. But Muslims tend to perceive that Christians (British and Americans) took Muslim territory by force, then gave it to the Jewish people. Of particular concern is the plight of Muslim Palestinians who have lived in Israel for many centuries, and now often suffer from what they (and others!) see as harsh Israeli rule.
Israel is the poster child for the bad guys. Extremists recruit Muslims by claiming that Christians are intent on seizing Muslim territory. They claim that just as the Christians took Palestine, Christians also invaded Iraq (perhaps to seize oil?), and that Christians certainly plan to seize more Muslim territory, unless Muslims fight to defend themselves.
This is why the very existence of Israel is continually a point of conflict between Muslims and Christians. Just as Jewish people (and many Christians) believe that God gave Israel to the Jews for all time, Muslims believe that God gave Israel to the Muslims. We are all reluctant to compromise what we see as the eternal will of God.
So what do we do? I hope that my brothers and sisters in Christ will see that it is not enough to be “right.” We are also called to love our Muslim brother and sisters. This means that while Christians should support Israel’s existence and security, we must also show love and care for the plight of Palestinians who have lived in Israel for many centuries. They are human beings made in God’s image. Muslims are naturally concerned about these people; as Chrsitians, God calls us to share that concern.
Furthermore, as Christians, we must create a hospitable environment for our Muslim neighbors. If we want Muslims to think that Christians really do believe in justice and fairness, then we must work hard to be just and fair in all that we do. Too often, Christians take the attitude of “we behave better than they do,” as if all God wants is for us to behave better than non-believers. Not so! We are called to be the best we can, and every time Christians behave badly, we give Muslims reason not to trust us.
I will write more about the historic reasons that Christians and Muslims distrust each other. As is so often the case, we all suffer for the errors of previous generations. But the answers to our difficulties will always be the same: going forward practicing loving and just behavior. For Christians, this is the best way – probably the only way – to promote peace in our world.
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
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