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Islam vs. liberty

Remembering 9/11 | Is a rule-obsessed religion that denies original sin and the need for grace compatible with freedom?

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

The United States replied to 9/11 with not only military might but the hope that Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries would gain freedom. A WORLD cover in 2005 showed an Iraqi voter making an ink-fingered peace sign. Television networks this year showcased demonstrators for freedom in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

But with democratic experiments stalling, more Americans are asking basic questions: Do many devout Muslims, for theological reasons, see liberty as an enemy? Is it historical accident that societies with a Protestant base have typically developed free institutions, and societies with a Muslim base typically have not?

To examine these questions we could use a brief foray into the comparative religion course that I taught for a decade at the University of Texas, where I tried to explain the basic Christian story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.

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In a class of 30, at the western edge of the Bible Belt, only a handful knew the biblical belief that we are helpless in our sins and that our only hope lies in God's grace because of Christ's sacrifice. Most students identified Christianity with a set of moralistic rules: Obey them and you're good.

Oddly enough, what they saw as Christianity is more like Islam. Muslims do not recognize original sin. They contend that Allah through his prophet Muhammad laid out the rules for moral living, and that we are naturally capable of following all of them. To quote from one typical and popular Muslim website, 2muslims.com, "A believer . . . has the conviction that there is no other means of success and salvation for him except purity of soul and righteousness of behavior."

Christians say only Christ meets that standard. (This is why "substitutionary atonement" is a crucial doctrine.) Muslims say they can meet it.

Islam's non-recognition of original sin, and consequent assumption that we can be sinless, leads Mubasher Ahmad of the Islamic Research Foundation International to conclude that it's possible "to eliminate suffering caused by humans." Muslims believe Allah has set out rules that can lead to a just society: Shariah law. The other alternative, a society of liberty, will bring pain but no gain: Liberty for what, to disobey Allah's rules?

Christians don't think a set of rules will make things right. The whole Old Testament shows that. God cares about what's in man's heart-and liberty reveals it. Will we love and trust God in our trials, or go our own way? The verdict of Scripture: Apart from God's grace, we go our own way.

Muslims, though, see God's tests not as primarily a push for us to cry out for mercy, but as a placement exam for heaven. As theologian Ousman Ahmad writes, "The harder the test you undergo and pass, the higher reward you will get on the day of judgment. . . . The easier the test which is passed, the lower the reward."

The difference between the two religions is profound. Christians emphasize God's grace in changing people like Jacob and Joseph who were liars and braggarts, people like Samson and Paul who relied on their own strength or their own intelligence, people like Gideon and Peter who through God's grace lost their fear and became bold and courageous. These individuals had to become aware of their own transgressions and limitations. They had to be broken, because often we don't realize how much we need God until we have no other alternative.

Let's follow this trail for a moment. We do not reach God: He reaches us, often when we are desperate. The goal is to end up in the right place, and not necessarily to receive a star for perfect attendance along the way. God values heart obedience, which shows up when we are free to disobey, above the pressured, collective bowing and prostrating that typifies Islamic obedience-so governments should not force us to go through the motions.

The Bible story is troubling to devout Muslims. Christians read in the Bible honest reporting about twisted, sinful individuals whom God chose not because of their own righteousness but because of His love. Muslims, though, see a record of great heroes that Jews and Christians somehow twisted during centuries of transmission. Since original sin does not exist, why does the Bible tell the stories of so many sinners?

What to Christians makes the Bible ring true-its record of how Noah got drunk, Lot committed incest, etc.-is exactly what makes it ring false to Muslims. Muslims believe that Allah picked biblical leaders to carry His messages because of their strong character, which enabled them to obey the rules. In Christianity the last shall be first. In Islam the first shall be first.

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