If you were to ask Muslims about the events in Iraq and Syria, you would get many different answers as to why these things are happening, which implies there is no single grand conspiracy that all Muslims have to “take over the world.” Sure, there are some who have grand designs to rule the world under a single caliphate, but most Muslims would never follow the radical leader of ISIS. The deeper question is, “Why would anyone follow a self-proclaimed spiritual and political leader who advocates such violence as God’s will?” Imam Wasif Iqbal asked the same question in a recent video interview that I did with him. According to the imam, this “caliph” has no appeal or legitimacy to most Muslims.
Many Muslims would like to see the world submitted to God. Christians would say the same thing. This world would be better off if we were submitted to God, but that should lead us to a neglected conversation between Muslims and Christians about what it means to submit to God and just how are we supposed to get to that point. In the Crusades and the 30 Years War and the Inquisitions, Christians have tried violence to get us there. You would hope we would be past that, but the majority of the “Christians” that have gone to the Middle East in the last 13 years have been carrying guns. At least that is the way followers of this “caliph” see things.
But Muslims have plenty of violence in their history too. In the times of the first Caliphs, people were assassinated as a way to get Muslims on the right path. In “Islam Without Extremes” Mustafa Akyol tells of the continual ideological, and sometimes violent, battles between rationalists and traditionalists. In chapters 4 and 5 he explains the divisions between the Hanafi and Hanbali schools of thought that are still evident today. Now, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are trying their hand at violence as a vehicle to force others onto their version of the straight way. But reasonable Christians and Muslims alike understand “submitting to God” as submitting one’s heart to God, and both groups reject the idea of military conquests to achieve those ends.
Muslims talk about the “greater and lesser jihad.” Although defensive violence is permitted in this worldview, the greater struggle is to fully submit one’s heart to God. In fact, my Muslim friends are quick to point out that the Qur’an teaches Muslims that there is “no compulsion” in religion. I know there are other Muslims (and Christians) who quote verses from the Qur’an about fighting people until there is no more unbelief, but this is part of the tension within Islam. The same tension Francis of Assisi confronted in Christianity in the Fifth Crusade. Did you know that there is a letter in Topkapi Museum in Instanbul, written by Muhammad himself, promising protection for Christians. True Muslims, if they follow the directives of Muhammad, reject the killing of others except in self-defense. My Muslim friends frequently quote surah 5:32. It says that if you kill one person, God views this as seriously as if you killed all of humanity. Some argue that the Qur’an teaches much less violence than the Old Testament.
Many Christians attempting to live out the teachings of Jesus have arrived at similar conclusions about violence. Christians have influenced our society’s vocabulary about a war being “just” only if it is defensive in nature. Followers of Jesus value the sanctity of life, believing that all people were created in the image of God. We believe that regardless of how religious one is on the outside, God looks at the motives of the heart. So it would really do no good to force people to become Christians (or Muslim) at the tip of a sword. God is looking at the intent of the heart.
If we, as followers of Jesus, believe in the truth and the power of the Bible and God’s spirit to transform the hearts of men, we need to trust Him to do so. We need to engage in the conversations to persuade. We can’t do that if we isolate and demonize and dehumanize those with whom we have differences. Those actions are the preface to war and the attempted pacification of our consciences that helps people kill each other. Scripture refers to this as the searing of our consciences. We have much more reticence to killing people that we know and care about, so it is easier just to marginalize others and disengage. That way we don’t have to face this dissonance within our spirit. We label and dismiss those who oppose us rather than doing the hard work of engaging them with love and respect.
Have you ever had someone hang a label on you? They want to know if you are a liberal or a conservative or a republican or democrat. They want to know if you are “for us or against us.” If you can be labeled as the enemy, you can be dismissed as irrelevant, expendable. Labels and generalizations are dangerous when God teaches us that the heart of the individual is how he measures a man.
With roughly two billion Christians and one and a half billion Muslims, there are a lot of variations in both camps. There are certainly some bad people in this world who call themselves Christians and Muslims, and it is tempting to let fear guide our response. But Paul told Timothy that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of love and power and self-discipline. Let’s be self-disciplined enough to not label and dismiss people that God created in His own image and loves intensely. Even while we were still in rebellion to God, he loved us. I believe we are to be imitators of God in this love. Let’s be wise enough to ask, “From where is this fear welling up? Scripture says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” As long as we are fearful, we are not loving perfectly; and if people are promoting fear, they are not promoting the love of God.They are not promoting reconciliation like an ambassador of the Prince of Peace. Those who promote fear are promoting alienation and forgetting the mercy that was once shown to them. May God help us all grow in our faith as we navigate these difficult times.