Stories of beheadings, church bombings, rape, children murdered point-blank, and executions on college campuses surface almost daily when it comes to the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the Taliban. The goal of the Islamic State is simple: to set up an Islamic caliphate (nation) that will one day encompass only Muslims. And ISIS will do literally anything it takes to get there, including committing atrocious acts of brutality and killing people of faith who disagree with their mission.
These alarming values can cause any non-Muslim to have a great deal of fear and distrust toward those who follow the teachings of Islam. In the wake of such mortifying terrorist acts, it’s easy to fall into accepting heavily stereotyped notions that view all Muslims as dangerous threats to our security.
While many Christians contend that Islam is not a peaceful religion based on some of the teachings in the Qur’an, scholar Warren Larson asserts, “The way some Christians are acting toward Muslims today is not peaceful, either.” He argues that many Westerners tend to forget that all Muslims are eternal beings made and valued by God, and instead appear to be concerned with only their own safety.
But God calls Christians to a radical love that extends beyond our own worries for safety or well-being. When we allow our fears to morph into stereotyping groups of people, this doesn’t further God’s kingdom. Instead, we’re called to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, whatever their religious or cultural background, as ourselves.
Not As "Extreme" as I Expected
Fear is no excuse to lump together a group of people and stereotype them because of the extreme actions of a few. I learned this truth last summer when I worked for the government of Kosovo as an intern.
Before I left for Kosovo, I had a lot of anxiety about what life would be like as I spent the next few months living in a Muslim country. I knew that Kosovo was a fairly modern country, but I was still fearful about living alone in an unfamiliar culture where the dominant religion was not my own. I expected to feel estranged and clearly labeled as “different” because of my Christian faith. I was even prepared to practice my faith secretly and to avoid talking about my Christian beliefs.
It only took me a few days of living in Kosovo to banish these fears. The Kosovars I interacted with were a lot like me. They had hopes and desires that were similar to most people in my home culture (America), and they weren’t violent or extreme in any way.
Most of the Kosovars I interacted with identified with Islam more from a cultural standpoint than through devout practice. For example, they did not strictly adhere to all 5 pillars of Islam. Most did not engage in prayer toward Mecca five times a day, nor did they regularly read the Qur’an or wear traditional Muslim dress (hijab), but they were unwaveringly welcoming, loving, and kind toward me as a guest in their country.
In Kosovo, there is an ancient law called the Rule of Besa that states that a guest in their country deserves as much respect as God. Because of this, I was frequently treated like royalty! No one ever expressed any violence or distaste toward me for being a Christian. The young Kosovar woman I lived with was incredibly welcoming and open toward my beliefs and me. She had a genuine interest in wanting to get to know me as a person and learn more about what I believed. Through living each day together, we grew close to each other and shared experiences about life and faith. Now that I’m back in America, we connect on Facebook, email, and Skype frequently.
Who Are We Called to Love?
My summer experience in Kosovo challenged me to rethink my conceptions of who I categorize as my neighbor. After gaining such a close friendship with a young woman who lived halfway around the world from me and had different religious beliefs, God began to transform my understanding of how Christians can relate to those who may seem completely different from ourselves.
The Gospel of Luke records how one of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time questioned him about the most important commandment in the Bible. Jesus responded by quoting from the Old Testament, saying “‘You must love the LORD your God with all our heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:25–29). Jesus then expounded on his answer as he relayed the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus defined what he meant by the word neighbor. Jesus’ story clarifies that neighbor does not just mean people who look like us or dress like us; instead the neighbor in Jesus’ parable was from Samaria—a person from a different country and different ethnic and religious background than Jesus.
For us today, this means our neighbors include those who may be attending the local mosque, or are a part of the group of Muslim refugees who just moved into the apartment down the road. The very same people you might be prone to stereotype.
Alana Raybon, a former Christian who is now a practicing Muslim, finds the all-too-common stereotypes against Muslims deeply frustrating. Alana is the coauthor with her mother Patricia Raybon of Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace. As a Muslim, Alana is upset by the perception of Islam that has surfaced because of extremist terrorism. “To the outsider,” Alana describes, “it might seem like every Muslim is like this. But from someone on the inside, like myself, I know for a fact that this is not at all the Islam that I practice, or, for that matter anybody that I know.”
Alana feels that many non-Muslims don’t understand that “Muslims have many of the same values that other Americans have, and we share some of the same ideas about safety and security and peace and how to deal with other people that are different from us.” Alana completely disagrees with the practices of ISIS, asserting that any form of extremism is not compatible with her understanding of Islam.
According to Alana, many Muslims are forming grassroots organizations to denounce acts of extreme terrorism. However, she points out that those stories aren’t making the news every night. Alana and her mother Patricia believe that even people from different faiths can listen, talk to, and accept one another. In a recent CT article, Patricia discussed this lack of understanding, explaining, “We’ve become not just a nation of strangers, but strangers who suspect each other on principle. It’s our 9/11 curse. Suspect thy neighbor.”
Alana shared with me how she hopes Christians and Muslims would be more willing to start conversations with one another that could eventually lead to relationships and more understanding between Muslims and Christians, saying, “I would like to see all of us getting to know each other more. I really hope that Christians and Muslims can go to each other’s congregations, get to know the community members, interact more. Because that’s the only way to break down these barriers of misunderstanding.”
Connecting with Our Muslim Neighbors and Friends
It’s one thing to recognize that barriers of misunderstandings and unfair assumptions between Muslims and Christians exist. But can we actually work to reverse these attitudes? Crescent Project is a Christian organization that strives to build bridges of love between Christians and Muslims. Jami Staples, Crescent’s director of women’s training, understands that nervousness and fear are common barriers for Christians when it comes to approaching Muslim women to build relationships. She says Christians sometimes worry that conversations with Muslims will turn to spiritual issues that they don’t feel equipped to discuss.
However, fear should not rule the way that we interact with our Muslim neighbors and friends. We are reminded in Scripture that Christ has not given us a spirit of fear but of power. The Holy Spirit’s power can help us step out in faith and start connecting with our Muslim neighbors. Staples shared three easy tips with me that can help Christian women show Jesus’ love with our female Muslim neighbors.
1. Start with a Simple Act of Kindness
According to Staples, this could be something as simple as saying “hi” to a neighbor who is Muslim or calling up your Muslim neighbor and asking if she needs someone to drive her children to baseball practice. Staples reminds us that “small acts of kindness are so enormous. You just would be amazed at how far you can get on one small act of kindness.”
2. Ask Questions
Staples reminds Americans that most Muslims in America have left their home country and way of life and are new to America, and she encourages us to be interested in learning about these women and their past experiences. Staples says that ignorance can actually play to a Christian’s benefit as we ask questions about an immigrant’s former way of life or the habits and daily routines of her home country.
3. Be Open About Yourself
Staples challenges us to “look for ways to build bridges of commonality, ways that you can say ‘we’re alike.’” She reminds us to express compassion and look for opportunities to stress common ground with the Muslim women we meet. “When you start building bridges,” Staples asserts, “you start to realize, Hey, we’re not as different as I thought we were.” She also reminds us that being open about ourselves can lead toward more spiritually minded conversations.
Ultimately, Staples says, “As soon as you open yourself once to engage with a Muslim woman, you’re going to find that your stereotypes are probably turned upside down.”
Love, Even When It's Hard
Crescent Project Founder and Director Fouad Masri asserts that the attacks of 9/11 caused many Christians to become upset and angry. Fouad clarifies that anger is an acceptable Christian response to acts of terrorism: “Absolutely we should get angry. This is not acceptable. We should [get] angry—but not sin. Hating Muslims is a sin.”
God himself gets angry about injustice. Even Jesus became angry during his life here on earth. However, even though we may be angry or afraid, Christians must remember that every single Muslim person in our world, extremist or peaceful, is made in the likeness of God and bears God’s image. We must not engage in stereotyping Muslim people. The reality is that even though ISIS is committing horrific acts of brutality, most Muslims are not engaged in extreme behavior.
Join God in His Grand Plan
God is working in amazing ways in the Muslim world today. According to Masri, more Muslims have come to a saving knowledge of Christ in the last 15 years than in the past 1,400 years that Islam has existed! God is moving in the Muslim world and there are many stories of devout Muslims who have turned to Christ after encountering Jesus through a dream or vision.
As Christians, we have the opportunity to open ourselves up to the exciting ways that God is working in the Muslim world today. God may be calling you to share the Good News of Christ to the Muslims around you. Let’s move past the stereotypes and biased thinking we may have toward Muslims and reflect God’s love to all our Muslim neighbors and friends.
Lauren Laskowski is a former editorial intern for Today’s Christian Woman and a recent Wheaton College graduate with a BA in International Relations and a Journalism Certificate. Lauren is currently living in Washington, D.C. where she works for the US government.