Sometime between the 2007 bombing of Karbala and the 2008 killing spree in Mumbai, leaders from the Muslim and Christian worlds sensed an era of good feeling.
In 2007 138 Muslim scholars and clerics signed an open letter called "A Common Word Between Us and You." In turn, over 300 Christians-liberal, traditional, and evangelical-signed "Loving God and Loving Neighbor: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You." As controversy over that text ensued, a few dropped off, including then-president of Wheaton College Duane Liftin.
Controversy over the text included its premise that Muslims and Christians worship the same God and an apology by Christians for violence against Muslims, with no reciprocal apology from Muslims. "What's missing from this document is a clear statement about what Christianity really is and how we can come together to talk with Muslims from our unique, distinctive, biblical standpoint," said pastor John Piper.
The critics didn't dampen 2008 conferences of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars-at Yale, where the Common Word response had been drafted by author and theologian Miroslav Volf and others, at Cambridge, the Vatican, and elsewhere.
In the streets of Iraqi cities like Baghdad and Mosul attacks on Christians-bombings, shootings, and kidnappings-ran high. By late 2008 over half a million Christians had fled Iraq for refuge in neighboring countries. Iraqi refugees I met in Syria in 2008 showed me threatening texts received on their phones and notes shoved under their front doors ("Be informed that we will cut your heads and leave your dead bodies with no organs ..."), all driven by radical Islamic teaching.
No one should soft-pedal the dualism-conciliatory rhetoric running alongside streets of blood-in the flourishing of "democracy" in the Middle East. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said at his inauguration (see "Outside the camp" in this issue) that Egyptians had "laid the foundation of a new life-absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability," but those are not the calling-card values of the Muslim Brotherhood. And some experts now are wiser for what the last decade has wrought.
In late June, Islamic scholar Judith Mendelsohn Rood withdrew her endorsement of A Common Word, saying the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was her wakeup call. "I confess that I have been in denial about the extent to which Salafi Islam is faithful to the texts of the Islamic religion," she wrote to Common Word drafters Volf and Joseph Cumming (also at Yale), "without taking seriously the way that the Quran itself twists biblical truth."
Rood is a professor of history at Biola and director of its Middle East studies program, a rarity among Christian colleges. More, she is the great-granddaughter of Holocaust victims and a convert to Christianity who is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. As a post-grad student, she studied in Jerusalem under a retired judge and former imam of Al-Aqsa mosque, himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The Muslim Brotherhood's ascent today in Egypt is again marked by the populist Islamist rhetoric of jihad, martyrdom, caliphate, and the conquest of Jerusalem, preached in mosques throughout the years, despite the enormous historical changes in the [Middle East] since the end of WWII," Rood writes. The Brotherhood's roots are common to the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia and the Salafists in Egypt (the former begetting al-Qaeda and the latter claiming Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 and recent attacks on the Israeli embassy and churches in Egypt).
The Obama administration has taken pains to distinguish the Muslim Brotherhood as "moderate Islamists" while Salafists are "radicals." A Common Word adherents, too, have worked to minimize the common lineage. But many experts say their ideology and goals are the same, it's just that the Brotherhood is more patient.
"Several of the Common Word letter signatories are what I would call 'radical Muslims' and would be entirely supportive of the Brotherhood's goals," author and theologian Mark Durie told me.
Western political leaders have an obligation to listen to history when it comes to the new leadership in Egypt-and it wouldn't hurt if they listened to religious experts like Rood. For the Christian the obligation is to hold fast to the distinctives of the faith, and then to live them amidst the turmoil.