A faith of peace

Which Muslim nation is an example of freedom?

Issue: "War in the shadows," Oct. 6, 2001

It's not just politically correct, but probably strategically essential as well, for the president of the United States and all his people to go on demonstrating to the American public what they call a big difference between the radical terrorists of Sept. 11 fame and ordinary Muslims. It's part of the president's job to preserve the unity of the country and to defuse secondary differences.

That's clearly why Mr. Bush made a point of visiting a mosque a few days ago. It's why he stressed as he left that Islam is "a faith of peace."

Does that mean the rest of us should put on blinders about Islam? Does it mean we should take at face value the glib assertions that selfless love is as much at the root of Islam as it is at the core of biblical Christianity? Does it mean we should simply nod in polite acceptance when we're assured that the destruction of noncombatants in war is as repugnant to Muslims as it is to us? Does it require us to embrace the notion that Islam, properly understood, has as much to offer the world as the religion of Jesus?

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Even before the awful attacks of Sept. 11, WORLD's editorial team had begun laying plans for one of our special issues later this fall that will help you understand Islam better. We first started talking about that last spring, and the assignment has become much more important now.

But some of the details I don't have to wait to study. Yes, I've probably got some presuppositions and biases that'll have to be set aside once I've examined the details. But there are also some things I'm already persuaded of that will be pretty hard to dislodge.

First and foremost among my doubts is this: Where is the Islamic society to which millions of people from the rest of the world are streaming because it is so compelling and attractive? In what country or region of the world is this "beautiful religion" practiced in a way that might prompt you to want to move there for the rest of your life?

When I visited Saudi Arabia 11 years ago, I was warned not to speak in public to a woman, and if in conversation with any Saudi man, not to mention Jesus. Either kind of misbehavior, I was told, could result in my arrest. And that was in a friendly Islamic country!

Oddly, of course, both Christianity and Islam are exclusivist religions. Both teach that theirs is the only right way to God. There may be a little ambiguity when Muslims say that there is no God but Allah, but the ambiguity disappears when they add that Mohammed is his prophet. Faithful Christians, on the other hand, remember that Jesus said flatly: "No one comes to the Father, but by Me." So both are exclusivist.

But after that, the differences get radical. The explicit teachings of Jesus, His example during His lifetime on earth, and the pattern of most early believers make it clear that the gospel and its implications are to find their access to people's hearts not by force of military or political power but by the energy of God's Spirit. Jesus could calmly tell Peter to resheath his sword; He had so much power to spare-even at that moment of extremity-that He could stop and restore the ear that Peter had so aggressively sliced off. The freedom of speech that Jesus thus extended even to His enemies (rooted, of course, in His confidence in the power at His disposal) is a foundational distinctive of the Christian religion-and a foundational element that Christianity has brought to Western civilization. If we Christians have not always remembered that as part of our birthright, as the Crusaders certainly did not, the essence of Jesus' teaching is not diminished.

Where is Islam's answer? A whole band of nations stretched across the top of the African continent, through the Middle East, and then into southwest Asia, where personal liberty is but a vague abstraction? Let's concede the point that the more radical branch of Islam-the Shiites who stress the concept of jihad-accounts for only 10 percent of the Muslim population worldwide. That means that the more moderate Sunnis have as their frontispiece countries like Syria, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Which of those nations welcomes people of other faiths in the way our nation welcomes Muslims?

Three explanations don't work. It isn't for lack of time: Islam has had well over a millennium to get its act together. It isn't for lack of money: Islam has had direct access to some of the world's greatest wealth. It isn't for lack of power: In 20 countries of the world, Islam has been dominantly in the political driver's seat.

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