Interview By: Chris Stackaruk
These past few weeks all eyes have been on the Middle East. ISIS and Hamas have owned the summer headlines as gruesome photos spill out from daily recurrences of violence.
Unfortunately, so many cameras pointed at so-relatively-few religiopolitical extremists can tend to skew our understanding of Islam as a whole. On behalf of the tragedies done in its name, it becomes easy to dismiss Islam as a religion that desires worldwide domination through violence. Many Christians think this way, and we can hardly blame them as the media and popular entertainment make it all too easy to believe.
Yet, Christ calls us to more. As Christians, we must rise above this media-based misunderstanding to offer both dignity and love to our Muslim neighbors around the world. Of course, this begins with understanding: getting to know Islam beyond the faulty caricatures that demean its adherents and put up barriers between us and them.
As discerning followers of Christ, we must therefore re-examine the ways in which we have answered the most pressing questions about Islam in our world today. As I am no expert, I have invited Dr. Scott Alexander, a frequently sought after expert on Islam, to share his insight on the teachings of the Qur’an, Middle East conflicts, and how Christians can best engage with their Muslim neighbors.
Dr. Alexander is director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. You can see his full bio here. Check out our interview below:
Dr. Alexander, in what ways do you believe Muslims are misrepresented in the media?
Since 9-11 there has been a surge in the systematic demonization of Islam and Muslims commonly referred to as “Islamophobia.” In a nutshell, Islamophobia operates on the deeply racist premise that Muslims are the ultimate religious and cultural “other.” Contemporary Islamophobic discourse draws on centuries-old European stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, adding “undemocratic” to “violent,” “hyper-sexualized,” and “misogynist.”
Islamophobia has come to play a central role in the master narrative of Western cultural/moral superiority. This is all despite the fact that in its latest, and allegedly greatest, century the West has been the locus of two World Wars, the Shoah, and the first nation in history to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations.
How do you think the media’s false depiction of Muslims has had an effect upon Christian thinking?
Not unlike religious people themselves, the media tends to misrepresent ALL religions through a massive failure to situate religious phenomena in their broader social and historical contexts.
This failure is particularly unfortunate and harmful when it comes to Christian approaches to religious “others,” especially Muslims. It encourages inherent misunderstanding and sometimes even deliberate alienation and demonization of religious “others.”
It has become popular to believe that Islam is intolerant of religious diversity (e.g., Christianity). Is this correct?
Religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, etc. have lived (and often flourished) for centuries in Muslim majority societies. Thus any read of Islamic norms as teaching unconditional and unmitigated violence against non-Muslims is historically counterfactual.
Since the colonial period, however, and the post-colonial establishment of a variety of different Western-backed totalitarian regimes in Muslims countries, Christians, Jews, and other religious and ethnic minorities have been viewed with suspicion. As a result, in the context of social unrest, they have been the target of persecution (along with even larger numbers of their Muslim neighbors).
Does Islam specifically teach hatred toward the Jewish people?
The slogan that “Jews and Arabs have been killing each other for millennia” (including the causal attribution of this falsehood to the alleged biblical rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac) is patently false. Indeed, when the Jews were expelled by the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, many emigrated to the Ottoman Empire where they established vibrant communities.
Contrary to what slogans might suggest, the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not thousands, but rather only about 100 years old, and far more linked to colonialism, the rise of secular nationalism, and Euro-American anti-Semitism, than any supposed longstanding enmity between Arabs and Jews as ethnic groups living in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, this conflict has become the source of a virulent new brand of anti-Semitism among many Arabs and Muslims worldwide (note the infamous Hamas Charter), as well as intensely anti-Arab bigotry and Islamophobia among many Jews and Israelis in particular (note the rhetoric of Rabbi Dov Lior and Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party).
We hear a lot about jihad in mass media coverage of Islam. What exactly is jihad?
The Qur’anic meaning of this term is the “struggle [to live righteously].” The Qur’an only permits violence insofar as it qualifies as a necessary component of the struggle for righteousness and justice.
In fact, I would maintain that this is the underlying logic for why this broad term for “struggle” (which has at its core the struggle to fast, pray, and give alms) becomes synonymous in Islamic jurisprudence with what the Christian tradition refers to as “just war” theory.
Why do violent extremist groups like ISIS justify their actions as “jihad”? Does the Qur’an ever teach Muslims that they should engage in jihad as violence against non-believers?
The simple answer is “yes.” But the key question is: who were these “non-believers” against whom the Qur’an eventually exhorts the earliest Muslim to take arms? It is critical to note that the “unbelievers” or “idolaters” were BY NO MEANS simply those who refused to accept the Prophet and his message.
Rather, they represented the political and religious power establishment in pre-Islamic Meccan society. As such, they possessed an active and ruthless agenda to crush, by any means necessary, the new movement (Islam), and thereby silence its call for social justice and radical spiritual, moral, economic, and political reform in 7th-century Arabian society.
How then do some use the Qur’an’s teaching to justify extreme violence, even terrorism?
All this does not mean that Qur’anic language supporting and even advocating violence against unbelievers has not been, and is not now, used by certain factions in their quest for power. They use it to justify and encourage the persecution–and even the murder–of fellow Muslims (deemed heretics), as well as non-Muslims.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS, for example, have deemed Western Christendom (does such a thing even exist?) as a neo-Crusader reality which, like the powerful persecutors of the earliest Muslim community, is bent on the utter domination of Muslim societies and eradication of Islam. These groups have also identified Zionist Judaism as one of the primary instruments of this domination.
What about ISIS? Where does it fit in our understanding of contemporary Islam?
Ideologically, ISIS bases its extremely tenuous claims to political legitimacy in the utopian, utterly ahistorical ideal of establishing a global Muslim caliphate which would constitute the only truly Islamic state in the world. Reflective of this aspiration, the motto of ISIS is “One Banner, One Community” and the self-proclaimed caliph (i.e., successor of the Prophet Muhammad as “Leader of the Faithful”), Ibrahim al-Samara’i, a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called upon all Muslims worldwide to emigrate to his newly established state.
Do Muslims worldwide recognize the legitimacy of ISIS?
Widely respected Sunni clerics like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Qatar) and Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam of al-Azhar (Egypt) have not only declared ISIS an illegitimate caliphate, but have deemed it a “danger to Islam.”
How can movements of extremism in Islam be understood in the context of the greater Muslim faith? Are they a mainline group, a minority, or just a faction?
The good news is that the little reliable polling data at our disposal suggests that the extremists and their sympathizers make up a very small percentage of the global Muslim population. For example, only 7% of Muslims worldwide believed that the attacks of 9-11 were completely justified. This was in the early 2000s–I suspect, based on the degree to which extremism has brought untold suffering to Muslim majority societies, that the number would be lower were the polling done today.
In your experience, how has Christian misunderstanding of Muslims been harmful to the church’s mission in the world?
The Christian failure to respect Islam as a spiritual medium through which Muslims recognize and seek to live out their human dignity in relationship with God, has amounted to, and will continue to amount to the Christian failure to recognize and affirm the human dignity of their Muslim sisters and brothers. As such, it is a betrayal of the Gospel of Christ, and thus a cancer in the missional life of the Church.
Practically speaking, how can North American Christians seek to better understand Muslims both at home and abroad?
Glad we’re ending with the easiest question: Get to know Muslims. Really. Get to know Muslims in whatever way possible.
We would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on our interview. Please feel free to post comments below and to share this with others who may be interested!