Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Once again, Israel and Palestine are in the news; once again, almost no one writes about how Muslims might see things. I understand that many Americans really don’t care what Muslims think about the Middle East peace process. But Christians are called to promote justice in the world, and achieving justice between two parties requires us to attempt the positions of all sides. I am not going to say in this piece what the USA should or should not have done in this immediate instance (I don’t have an answer). Instead, I will give some information to help Christians think wisely about Israel and Palestine.
Earlier this week the United States abstained from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 2334. I suggest that everyone read this for themselves – it’s short and easy to follow. Among other things, it condemns all terrorist activity, and calls for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate in good faith to peacefully resolve their differences.
The problem comes in section 4, which “stresses [italics theirs] that the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution, and calls for affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends on the ground that are imperiling the two-State solution.”
The resolution does not directly give the reason for the resolution, but Israel had recently decided to continue settlement activity, creating more housing in the West Bank for its expanding Jewish population.
While the United States has often vetoed resolutions which criticize Israel’s actions, the Obama administration chose not to do so in this instance, leading to criticism from people who identify themselves as “pro-Israel.” Their argument is that this resolution effectively condemns Israel (even though the resolution itself does not use this language) for doing what a sovereign nation should be permitted to do, redistributing land to better house its citizens.
As I wrote above, I have mixed feelings about the resolution and about the US response. Building settlements in Palestinian areas makes it harder to get to the “two-state” solution, which the United States and the UN have been pushing for decades. On the other hand, however, we’re usually better off not telling other countries how to manage their domestic affairs.
One thing that “pro-Israel” people like to repeat is that many Muslims wish to make Israel disappear entirely. This is correct; but for most Muslims this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, as their detractors imply. Islam teaches that around 637 AD God gave what we call “Israel” to the Muslims. Christians and observant Jews like to point to Old Testament passages which state that Israel belongs to the Jewish people forever. Muslims do not dispute these passages; they simply argue that, because of the sins of the Jews and the Christians, God took Israel away and gave it to the Muslims. Just as Christians argue that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament, Muslims argue that God can revise promises made to people who do not obey him. Thus, for almost 1400 years Muslims have regarded what we call the “Middle East” as God-given Muslim territory.
Israel came about in 1948 because the Christian nations (primarily Great Britain) took the land by force, and gave it to the Jewish people. It exists today because Christian nations (primarily the USA) supply Israel with money, technology, and weapons. But the fact that Christians use military might to take and hold Muslim land, does not mean that God agrees that Israel should exist.
Many Muslims object to the fact that Christian created a Jewish state in Muslim territory, rather than Christian territory. This is where we Christians must show some sensitivity. As a Christian, I strongly agree with the 20th century Christians who recognized a need for a country to which all Jews might escape anti-Semitism. But Muslims make a valid point: if we Christians really wanted an “Israel” for Jews, then shouldn’t we have given the Jewish people land belonging to Christians, rather than land belonging to Muslims?
Believe it or not, some of the first people to propose a modern “Israel” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggested other locations in Africa and South America. I’m not saying here that Britain and the United States necessarily picked the wrong location; however, if modern Israel were located next to Argentina, we would have a much less chaotic Middle East.
From a Muslim point of view, the territory which we call “Israel” really belongs to Muslims, just as it has been Muslim since the seventh century. Except for a century during the time of the Crusades, Christians have had to accept the reality that Muslims controlled Israel by force of arms. Today the situation is reversed: Israel belongs to Jews only because of Christian military might. Now it is Muslims who hope and pray that, one day, God will return their land to them.
Must the cycle of violence therefore go on forever? I hope not. But lasting peace begins with the acknowledgment that members of both sides passionately believe that God gave the land to them, forever.
For the record, I support the right of Israel to exist as an independent state. I’m glad that the United States strongly supports Israel. Anti-Semitism is a powerful force in the world, and Jewish people (including me! My Mom’s parents were Orthodox Jews from Poland) cannot realistically rely on any nation, including the United States, to offer safety.
But when we discuss Middle East issues with our Muslim friends and neighbors, we should respect their belief that God gave the land to Muslims, and that what we call “Israel” was stolen from them by military force. Christians, Muslims, and Jews may never agree on what God wants for the land. But faithful followers of Jesus Christ, called to be peacemakers, are obligated to learn and respect what each side believes to be the will of God.