In an upcoming issue of CT, I'll be profiling Doug Johnston, founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. ICRD works in some of the toughest areas where identity-based conflict is most intractable--Kashmir, Sudan, and now in Syria. To get a sense of what ICRD does, I attended a weeklong Christian/Muslim reconciliation dialog in Cyprus. Christian leaders from around the U.S. and Muslims from Syria and Jordan participated.
I was struck by how difficult this work is. Building trust across cultures and between groups opposed to one another takes time, patience, and lots of effort. While the American Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims differed in many ways--and remain so, even in this setting--we could always say we loved each other as people, even if we opposed each other’s governmental policies. In ICRD's work in Kashmir, however, where Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are ever on the brink of war, such platitudes don't work. Despite the many frustrations we encountered in Cyprus, there are infinitely more obstacles to peace in other places around the globe.
Yet, ICRD has had success. In Sudan, Johnston and others brokered an agreement between Christians and Muslims. (Listen to Johnston talk about it on Speaking of Faith.) Johnston told me his goal in Sudan was to see what kind of rights a Muslim government operating under Shari'ah law could provide for Christians. While the situation in Sudan between Christians and Muslims is by no means solved, ICRD has achieved significant progress.
What will come of ICRD's efforts in Syria remains to be seen, but I left our meeting with a changed attitude toward Muslims and Islam. First, extremists--those who use violence to push a specific interpretation of Islam--are more dangerous to Muslims than to Americans. The threat they pose has strengthened undemocratic regimes in the Middle East (sometimes supported by the U.S.) who are eager to exploit the opportunity to increase their hold over citizens. Extremists pose a more immediate threat to Muslims who disagree with them. Moderate Muslims are the extremists’ first targets.
Second, American Christians who demonize Islam or Muslims make it impossible to love our neighbors, love our enemies, or pray for those who persecute us. Calling Muslims "Islamofascists" or Islam "evil and wicked" is harmful, both to the vast majority of Muslims for whom those terms don't apply and to Christians who are obligated to understand, respect, and ultimately love our religious neighbors.
Christians must have a balanced view toward Israel. Without compromising on the nation's right to exist or its right to defend itself, we must also be critical of any way in which Israel has not been a good neighbor in the region--violating human rights, refusing to abide by U.N. resolutions, or oppressing the Palestinian people.
There is much in Islam that Christians can agree with. Muslims see themselves as worshiping the same God as Christians. They see Jesus as a prophet--though their notion of who Jesus is differs significantly from Christians'. They pray much as Christians do. They believe that Mohammed simply brought to Arabs the message of the one God--as opposed to paganism. Christians are seen as spiritual brothers. It was a Christian monk, according to Islam, who identified Mohammed as a prophet, and a Christian king protected the early Muslim community from attack.
However, there are also significant differences, which cannot be overlooked. Muslims, while honoring Jesus, also refuse to see him as Christians do--as the fully human, fully divine Son of God.
The Muslim idea of forgiveness is also very different than the forgiveness that Jesus taught. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, he said. And while hanging on the cross, Jesus said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." Christians understand forgiveness as something that an offended party offers regardless of whether the offender sees the wrong he has done or even corrects his behavior. For Muslims, forgiveness only happens once restitution has been made.
Christians can be thankful that God sent Jesus to die for our sins "while we were yet sinners," and before we could make restitution for our offense against him.
It was striking to see how counter-cultural the Christian idea of forgiveness really is. And it is sobering to think of how difficult peacemaking can be when two sides can't forgive until their grievances are addressed.