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Pray for nominalism

Deeply held belief in Iraq would mean deep trouble

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

HERE'S A TWIST: WHEN YOU PRAY FOR THE PEOPLE of Iraq, pray that they won't take their religion too seriously in the days just ahead. In fact, you might pray that Iraqis will take their traditional faith about as seriously as most Americans take theirs.

You have to think about issues like that when Shiite clerics in the newly liberated Iraq start calling on their faithful followers to "seize the first possible opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the administration of Iraqi cities." Craig Smith of The New York Times reports that Shiite mullahs in the holy city of Najaf have been dispensing money and appointing clerics to administer several key Iraqi areas. Those clerics, in turn, are appointing officials to run everything from civil defense militias to post offices.

But isn't that exactly what good worldviewish Christians are also called on to do, wherever they are? Can't you imagine Charles Colson or James Dobson or R.C. Sproul or Cal Thomas challenging their followers by saying, "Roll up your sleeves, Christians, and take your faith into the marketplace. Be a faithful witness and take your Christian distinctives boldly into your place of business, into your role as a politician, or as a doctor, or as a newspaper editor, or as a university professor." Isn't that what it means to be salt in our society?

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Nor is it hard to imagine the regular discouragement so many of those leaders feel over the lukewarm response they receive. Day after day, these modern-day prophets urge listeners to be stalwarts for the faith that they profess. But day after day, these prophets also face up to the reality that only a relative few listen.

That same lukewarm response, odd as it may seem, is exactly what we ought to pray for in Iraq. For if the Muslims of Iraq were to get really fervent in their reaction to the fatwas that are coming regularly now from their religious leaders, we might find the results to be very troublesome indeed.

Remember that most of the dread inflicted by terrorists over the last 20 months has come from men whose zeal for what they believed bordered on the bizarre. These were people who fairly openly thought their god would reward them for deliberately giving up their own lives while flying an airliner loaded with innocent civilians into a skyscraper also filled with innocent civilians. Most of us couldn't begin to understand such fervor-and the mystery of that fervor has left much of the world shaking in its boots.

Never mind for right now the debate over whether such radical behavior is what the Koran ultimately calls for from all really faithful adherents to Islam. Some read the Islamic scriptures that way; some don't. The reality is that relatively big numbers of Muslims have actually carried out such extreme measures. If here and there you can find a Christian (or a faithful adherent to some other religion) deliberately sacrificing his own life for the cause, there always seem to be a thousand times as many Muslims ready for the same terrifying commitment.

So a shiver of deja vu might be understandable when the call goes out to the Islamic faithful to become more faithful still. Saddam Hussein may have been incredibly evil; but how much of an improvement is an Iraq governed by fundamentalist Muslims? Which kind of totalitarianism is worse? Times reporter Smith claims that "the possibility of a virulent burst of Shiite religious militancy appears to constitute one of the chief threats to American plans to install an open, democratic system in Iraq."

Some 60 percent of the Iraqi population are said to be adherents to the Shiite brand of Islam. Last week's fatwa instructed Shiite followers to "raise people's awareness of the Great Satan's [America's] plans and of the means to abort them." It's scary to imagine what might happen if a significant number would respond with any discipline at all.

But lots of Muslims-like lots of Christians-are nominalists. "I took my family to the mosque last Saturday," some Muslim dad might well respond as he listens to the demands of the fatwa. "Isn't that enough?" I can even imagine someone like that rationalizing against getting overcommitted by arguing that he would never want to be known as a "fundamentalist."

I've never seen a statistic suggesting whether devout Muslims or secular Muslims are more susceptible to the claims of the Christian gospel. But secularism, for all its evils, doesn't have an established history of calling for jihad after jihad against those who disagree.

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