There are many ideological challenges that face the Christian community today, especially here in the Middle East. One of the challenges for the local believing community is from political and radical Islam. There are a number of responses to political Islam. Two of the primary responses that we see coming from the West are from more conservative evangelicals and also from the more liberal churches. Conservative Western evangelicals tend to see the Middle East through the lens of religion.
To many Westerners, Islam is frequently viewed as a threat since it is distinctively different and foreign in its expression. Islam is often perceived as anti-Christian, and the majority of problems in the Middle East are linked to Islam’s dominance in the region. These perceptions can lead to fear of Muslims, sometimes resulting in negative and racist attitudes toward Arab or Muslim people. At the other end of the spectrum, many liberal churches see current events in the Middle East as a byproduct of social changes such as modernization and urbanization, and they see radical Islam as a result of colonialism and imperialism. These Christians tend to highlight parts of history in other religions, such as Christianity, where wars were waged in God’s name, and others were mistreated based on religious stipulations. They do this to challenge the negative view of Islam and Muslim culture, arguing that the negative aspects of radical Islam are not the sum total of the religion. At the same time, the liberal church fails to address the role of religion in politics; it also fails to critique the negative aspects of radical Islam. These two competing Christian views relate to how both camps approach the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of these Christian camps also influence the relationship between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.
When we turn on Christian television programming here in the Middle East, we often see apologetic programs arguing for the veracity of the Christian faith and attempting to present the Gospel message; or programs contrasting the God of Christianity with the God of Islam. Many of these broadcasts portray a negative view of Islam and Muslim cultures. Their focus is often evangelistic, seeking to win souls without regard for people’s heritage, culture and the challenges they face. Some of these television programs evoke a strong negative reaction from Muslims toward Christians due to the condemning and aggressive nature of the content.
Last semester I taught a class at Bethlehem Bible College on Islam and the Muslim-Christian relationship. Several things stood out to me as a result of this course. Even though Palestinian Christians live among Muslims, their knowledge and understanding of Islam is minimal, and there is much inaccurate information about Islam. Some of my students are active in evangelism toward Muslims, but a few of them expressed that they do not know much about Islam. This has proved embarrassing when they shared the Gospel in ways that fostered more misunderstanding than understanding from Muslims. Others noted that sometimes attempts at evangelism come off too aggressively.
Another observation I made is there is growing hostility toward Muslims among young Christians, even to the point that some students say they are not interested in sharing the Gospel with Muslims because they do not deserve salvation. I need to constantly emphasize that we must love our neighbors and those we witness to, or else the Gospel message will be invalidated. In John 3:16 we read that God loved the world – even when the world rebelled against him. The message we get from this is that we must learn to love even those who object to us, and we must constantly check our motivations and attitudes when we interact with others.
One major complaint that local Muslims have toward Christians is that, outside of necessary interaction (buying groceries at the store, etc.), the only Christian interaction with Muslims is motivated by the desire to convert them. They argue that Christians are not interested in them, their families, culture, or history. As a result, Muslims are not interested in talking to Christians, and they are often hostile toward the message that Christians bring.
Most of Musalaha’s reconciliation work is between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. Both Israeli Messianics and Palestinian Christians are minorities within their respective societies. While we focus on these two minority groups, we know that change does not happen in a vacuum. To change our present conflict and move toward reconciliation as two distinct ethnic groups, we need to successfully influence our own communities, and learn to live peacefully with the other side. As it says in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
As believers, we are called to be involved in change: change within ourselves, and affecting change in society. We know that personal transformation is possible due to the work of the Holy Spirit who changes us on a personal level. This change has a direct impact on our circle of influence as well. When God changes us through our relationship with him, he works through us to provoke change in our community. In Romans 12: 1-2 we read, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” We believe what is written in Philippians 1:6, that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Our personal transformation is not only individually focused but also community focused since it benefits others, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). God changes us to become agents of change, and as our minds are transformed (Romans 12:1-2), we are given a new perspective.
This understanding fuels our desire to not only impact the believing communities of Israel/Palestine, but the greater society as well.
For the past five years, Musalaha has been involved in community bridge-building initiatives, primarily between Muslims and Christians. Part of the message of reconciliation is the declaration of what Jesus did on the cross, as he came to reconcile us to God and to each other. Our work as believers should mirror the early community of Jesus followers in caring for the widows, the orphans, in involvement with people from our social communities, building bridges, and “dirtying our hands” with the issues that plague society.
The growing tension between Christians and Muslims needs to be addressed in our context as well as in international contexts. Learning how to engage with others from different faith groups and breaking down our stereotypes toward other faith groups, and vice versa, is an essential part of communal change. In the past Musalaha has led desert trips for Muslim and Christian groups from Bethlehem. Due to the success of these encounters, we were recently approached by past participants requesting that we organize a desert encounter for young Muslim and Christian lawyers in Bethlehem. There are many divisive issues between Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem. One prominent source of tension surrounds the issue of land ownership.
Many Christians refuse to sell land to Muslims, and vice versa. When disputes arise between two individuals from different religious backgrounds, it often escalates into an issue between two communities. As a result, these past participants thought that it would be good to offer a desert encounter for these young professionals who have a growing sphere of influence in their respective communities.
We have taken 24 people to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan: 10 Muslim male and female lawyers, and 10 Christian male and female lawyers, along with four leaders. (We have discussed the advantages of bringing groups to the desert in many previous articles, so we will not elaborate on how being in the desert helps with the process of breaking down barriers and increases relationship building.) On the day we arrived at Wadi Rum, we spent time getting to know one another through ice-breaking games. As young professionals who took time away from their busy lives and schedules, they were eager to make the most of this opportunity, and participants quickly began to develop relationships.
On the following days we began to discuss deeper issues in between camel rides and jeep rides. We began by asking, what is the most important goal of the relationship between Muslims and Christians? After much discussion, both sides concluded that tolerance is the most important objective for the two communities. Exploring this in greater depth, we asked the group why a good relationship between Muslims and Christians is important. Afterwards, we examined the negative perceptions both sides have toward the other and the negative influences that affect both the Muslim and Christian Palestinian communities.
When we asked the group about the importance of establishing and maintaining a good relationship, we were in effect asking what vision Palestinian Muslims and Christians have for their shared future. When we ask this sort of question, usually people start by listing obstacles, pain and challenges. However, this group of young Palestinians responded that they want to have strong social relationships, integration in education to decrease racism (and thus influence a whole new generation of children), and economic development. They hope that these increased ties would help them deal with disputes and problems when they arise in the community. It was very important to the Muslim participants to change the negative view and religious intolerance toward Muslims in the West. The group continued by expressing a vision of a positive relationship between Muslims and Christians, not only for their own sakes, but to be a model for others.
One issue that emerged during this discussion was the source of the Palestinian constitution, whether it would be based on sharia (Islamic) law alone, whether sharia law would be one factor among many, or something else. It was very clear that Palestinians need to develop a Middle Eastern contextualized constitution where religion plays a role as the Western example of separating religion and politics was entirely unacceptable for the Muslim participants. Some Christian participants discussed the problematic nature of this by giving the example of how Ramadan is enforced in some Muslim majority towns. They shared how Christians are not allowed to eat or drink in public for this month of Muslim fasting and prayer. Both the Muslims and the Christians recognized the need for pluralism, as well as the need to respect the rights of minorities. While there was no consensus as to what should be done, it was inspiring to hear what these young Palestinians think on this issue. It was evident that they are trying to maintain a place for religion in society while making room for the other.
Later, the Muslim and Christian groups were separated to discuss the negative perceptions each group has toward the other. The Muslim grievances mainly had to do with employment, education, respect and land. The Christian grievances mainly focused on issues of respect and religion. There are several recognized patterns that commonly occur in Muslim-Christian interactions that also arose during this desert encounter. These issues are: attitudes toward women, the lack of respect that one side has toward the other’s symbols/holidays, the role of religious institutions, religious discrimination against those from other religious backgrounds, and the rise of religious intolerance.
When the groups came back together, they presented their findings to the other side. While the initial response of some on both sides was denial – “We don’t treat you this way!” – or justification – “We only do that because….,” both sides were able to hear the other side and be heard.
We discussed whether all these grievances are truly fact or perception, and it was comforting for both sides to conclude that some of these issues are not as prevalent as each side supposed. For example, when we addressed the issue of whether or not Christians only buy from Christians, and Muslims only buy from Muslims, participants were able to counter this, saying that this is not a common phenomenon. This was a confirmation of Musalaha’s model of bringing people together to learn about the other side, to articulate their feelings to the other side, and to right some of the misunderstandings that arise due to insufficient information.
One of the results of these encounters is that we see our Christian participants wanting to learn more about Christianity. Our Muslim participants generally have a better understanding than Christians of their religion’s role in society and politics. Most of the Christians that attended are nominal Christians, and they were challenged concerning their Christian identity. Muslim participants discussed how, after Friday prayers, Muslim preachers reflect on a Quranic passage, and then give a social and political message. They wanted to learn more about Jesus’ social and political message in his time, and the message Christianity has to offer society today.
It was fascinating to see and hear what we were able to accomplish on this trip. Since we were with lawyers, we spent quite a bit of time discussing specific legal issues, a topic that we usually do not discuss in other desert encounters. It was clear that these young leaders have a strong vision for the future that they are committed to implementing, both for the sake of their respective communities, and also in order to be an example to others. We learned the benefit of a pluralistic society and the importance of tolerance. It is a common phenomenon that individuals who are part of a majority group tend to overlook the needs and concerns of those in minority groups. Accordingly, we were able to address how a Palestinian constitution would affect minority groups such as Palestinian Christians, an issue that Palestinian Muslims are often unaware of in their daily lives. We were moved by each side’s honesty and openness, and we look forward to sharing more about this promising group of young leaders in the future.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D
Edited by A. Tour and Lisa Loden