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Islam: the intersection of religion and politics

International | As Muslims observe Ramadan-the month during which they engage in daylight-hours fasts-can they also abstain from the fear and fragmentation tugging at Islam? Or see in it the sign of the cross? This phenomenon presents opportunities and challenges both for foreign policymakers and for Western mission agencies

Issue: "Judicial overreach?," Dec. 2, 2000

When the Kurds of northern Iraq referred to President George Bush after the Gulf War, they took to sign language and signed a cross. Aid workers in the region learned that, for the Kurds, the American president represented the Christian West. Mr. Bush, we surmise, had no missionary purpose in mind when he ordered troops to northern Iraq to check the genocidal impulses of Saddam Hussein. Regional stability and oil flow were probably more prominent thoughts. Yet the message that carried to locals was of a powerful and caring people steaming speedily to the aid of an oppressed minority. Like it or not, we were branded compassionate. Muslim people could relate to that quality in our otherwise obscured heritage. The United States helped the Kurds and they saw the cross. Kurdistan is not a country. It is the homeland of a people that Middle Eastern history has tried to write out, and write off, time and again. Kurds sprawl across parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and small portions of other countries. Kurds lined up with the Arabs against the Crusaders-the fierce Saladin was a Kurd-but our world today does not subdivide so neatly. These days, Arabs, Persians, and Turks-their fellow Muslims-revile them. The symmetry of the Crusades and of the Cold War is a wistful fancy. A world formerly polarized around religions and ideologies now gangs up along ethnic lines. As soon as the Iron Curtain began to tear, ethnic flags began to fly: Kazakh, Uzbek, Chechen, Latvian, and many more. As a category, the Soviet Bloc had been way too tidy, belying the seething divides based on heritage. When Moscow lost its hold on the reins, these went charging off in a hundred directions, but always in league with their own kind. Today, ethnicity determines behavior around the world and defines virtually every conflict. Pick a fight, any fight, and you'll find two people groups at odds, from the asphalt jungle of any inner city in the United States to the tropical isles of Indonesia. Javanese (Muslims) fight Chinese (Christians). The difference in religion is often parenthetical. The Chinese, despite a presence that spans generations, are the outsiders, clannish and aloof, and more successful in business. Were they Buddhists or atheists, the strife would still rage. Political belief, too, may be an illusion of convenience, furthering the ends those on the inside or those who would spin it from without for their own purposes. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party obligingly adopted a geopolitically correct name and even festooned itself with the hammer and sickle, but its members' ideology was only as deep as their ammunition dump. They took Russian money and fought the Soviets' enemies, the Turks of NATO, but their passion for world socialism ended as soon as they spent the last Soviet round. As the world realigns itself along new axes, the Christian-Muslim relationship must come under scrutiny in light of the new realities. If the old adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," is still true, we must consider: Our enemies' old enemies might be their new friends. Accustomed to the piercing shrill of the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers and other Islamic fundamentalists, many Americans miss two characteristics of the modern Muslim world. The first is that Islam struggles with fragmentation and secularization just as Christianity does. Even the theocracies capable of keeping the makeup from running on their façades suffer from internal tensions. Recent developments in Iran-where democratic reformers are making inroads against the ruling Islamic fundamentalists-provide a case in point. At the same time, secular states with Muslim majorities register on the piety scale at levels familiar to Americans. Walk down a street in Istanbul and watch the multitudes bow-not to the muezzin's call to prayer wafting across the Bosporus-but to Hollywood and Calvin Klein. Cultural Muslims in Turkey's capital have more in common with Sunday-only churchgoers in New York City than the devout Muslims on the city's outskirts. The second characteristic is fear. Islamic nations harbor no delusions as to the military and political might of the West. Israel's abiding presence, and recent exercise of firepower against Palestinians, assures them of that. Islamic religious leaders fear Western spiritual muscle, as well. For Islamic militants, the Great Commission is deadly serious business; it's only Christians who have discovered in it the Great Suggestion. Muslim commentators, for instance, take more seriously Christian evangelism in the "10/40 window"-a band around the globe that includes the newly independent states of Central Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, parts of the Middle East and of Africa-than their Christian counterparts. In Nida'ul Islam magazine, Amir Abdullah writes, "This region has become the target of unprecedented efforts by Christian missionaries to convert the Muslims to their religion. Like a cancerous growth, we are seeing Christians gain a foothold in the lands of the believers." Arriving long ago "with swords and suits of armor," he says, they now come "with credit cards and million-dollar aid checks." Referring to Christian evangelists as "human shayateen" (Satans), Mr. Abdullah says they are converting many Muslims to their false religion and injecting "a virulent poison" into the nation of Islam. He says, "The Muslim world is under attack." To prove his point, Mr. Abdullah cites these kinds of figures: The percentage of Muslims in Malawi, he says, has dropped from 66 percent to 17 percent in half a century. In all of Africa, a Christian population of 9 million in 1900 ballooned to over 200 million by the end of the century. Extremist Islam dreads nothing so much as Christian love. It may be administered in the form of protection or aid, often both. Its appeal is irresistible. Research by J. Dudley Woodberry, a scholar on Islam at Fuller Seminary's School of World Missions, indicates that humanitarian aid to Muslims is a factor most instrumental in turning more to Christ than any other approach. In cases of war, he has also found, that response does not depend on whether or not the Muslims' oppressors called themselves Christians. As long as Christians administer relief, the effect is the same. Last year, not long after NATO came to the rescue of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, I sat in a pleasant courtyard in the town of Ferrazaj with a local Muslim. He told of fleeing into the mountains with his wife, three daughters, elderly parents, and sisters, racing the bullets of the advancing Serbs. International aid workers restored his home and rebuilt his computer business. He glowed with effusive thanks for any American he encountered. More important, he was listening to Christians for the first time in his life, he said, even though those who had assailed him also called themselves Christians. So I applauded as the conservative President George Bush sent troops into Iraq to protect U.S. interests, with the result that Kurds saw the West as compassionate and Christian. I cheered the liberal President Clinton when he sent troops into Kosovo, where we have little interest, because it opened an opportunity for Albanian Muslims to see a Christianity they could respect in the aid workers who followed. The Christian must stand on Romans 13, which binds him to obey his government and binds his government to doing right. If the U.S. government defends the defenseless from other governments that pursue evil, it will confront the Muslim with that which he cannot resist, Christian love that stands up for the vulnerable. He'll see it in the sign of the cross.

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