This year marks 20 years since 19 men hijacked four planes, driving two of the aircraft into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one into a field in Pennsylvania, after several of the passengers fought back. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and left 25,000 people injured and were organized by Osama bin Laden, who used his faith as justification for the attacks. Several days after September 11, 2001, President Bush addressed the country:
These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.
The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.
The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.
When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race.
Under the Bush administration, the US initiated the “War on Terror” which carried out a number of military inventions around the world to fight Islamic extremism, which included invading and occupying two majority Muslim nations, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, all of this political rhetoric and direct action had significant consequences for how the country and church engaged Muslims domestically and internationally.
Thomas Kidd is the author of American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press, 2008) and works at Baylor University where is a distinguished professor of history, the James Vardaman endowed professor of history and the associate director of Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.
Kidd joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss how American evangelicals interacted with Muslim before 9/11 and what has changed since.
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The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #280
Starting with the Bush speech, do you find anything remarkable about what Bush says here? What were your thoughts then and how do you look at it now?
Thomas Kidd: Bush is a fascinating character on religion, both because of his own evangelical conversion experience, but also because of his relative moderation on Islam itself. That speaks to a different Republican Party 20 years ago.
I don't think his views about Islam would be warmly received by Republican Party today or by many evangelicals. Bush also reflected ambivalence about how to react to Islam and Muslims in the wake of 9/11 that I find understandable. 9/11 demonstrated that Islam has a serious problem with radical jihadism in certain segments of the global Muslim community, but Bush’s inclination to want to reassure people that the majority of Muslims are not jihadists, are not terrorists is the right one too. I tend to contrast Bush's speech and there were also times where he talked about Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God, which became a live, renewed debate after 9/11, whether that's theologically true or not that Muslims and Christians worship the same thing.
But he also said, I think on September 20th in his address to Congress, when he first began to talk about Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, I think the most famous line of that speech when he talked about how freedom and fear and justice and injustice, two or three pairings, like that had always been at war and he said, God is not neutral on these questions. Again, I found that comprehensible when he said that, but I also thought that's a sort of a more religious absolutist kind of approach to what just happened that is a little bit in tension with his admirable ways to these trying to think the best of the world Muslim community.
So even in himself, he reflects a sort of tension and ambivalence that many Christians, especially in America, felt about how to react to Muslims after 9/11.
Ted Olsen: There was some controversy, even back then with some of his emphases of Islam being a religion of peace. CT ran some pieces about that. Questions about whether the God of Muhammad is the father of Jesus. There was that kind of tension about whether the president of the United States should be the person defining what Islam is and is not about. I guess there are still some aspects of that, but I guess that has changed with people becoming more familiar with Muslims.
Was there an aspect where earlier presidents, political leaders had an aspect of explaining Islam or Muhammadism that would have been called to the American public? Was there familiarity with tenants of Islam and what Islam was about?
Thomas Kidd: There was talk about Islam, of course, throughout all of American history, going back to the earliest colonial period, but a lot of that, as you would expect, was based on stereotypes, and so forth. There had been a growing familiarity before 9/11, with the problem of Islamist terrorism, concern for instance about the Iranian revolution of 1979 and how the attack on the American embassy, the hostage crisis resulted from that, that certainly 9/11 was because of the pain and deaths and suffering and then the wars that at least indirectly resulted from 9/11 brought Islam to an unprecedented level of American and specifically American Christian consciousness.
The Christian community was somewhat divided as you saw it even in Bush’s tension over this issue between more charitable readings and then the more inflammatory and stereotypical readings.
To give an overview, how much experience did Americans and especially American leaders have with Muslims. Was it theoretical or actual?
Thomas Kidd: It was both. Part of the reason I wrote the book was that on a personal level 9/11 made me newly interested and sensitized to the question of Islam and American history as never before. Before 9/11 I think I probably had seen references to Islam and colonial American documents and so forth. It wasn't quite as much of interest of mine as it would be after 9/11. So, part of the reason I wrote the book was just to answer the question about, what did American Christians in particular know and think that they knew about Islam over the long period of American history?
It turns out that in the colonial period, for instance, there were biographies of Muhammad that were usually quite polemical, anti-Muslim biographies, probably the most popular one was called The True Nature of Imposture, Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet.
Muhammad is in this reading an imposter, fake, and charlatan. They would talk about the tricks that he would play, that he would train a pigeon to pick peas out of his ear, or like the Holy Spirit was speaking into his ear, all kinds of rumors and stories, apocryphal things about Muhammad's life.
Who was the author and what type of interest did they have in writing a book like that?
Thomas Kidd: The author of that book was a man named Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican minister in England, but it was popular like many books. It was published in England but circulated widely in America.
But you could see more broadly that it became almost ubiquitous that people in the 1700s in England and America when they would refer to the prophet Muhammad, would call him an imposter, whether they were citing the book or not. It was an apologetics book for Christianity. There was growing interest at that time in world religions. There was exposure, in the 1680s, the Ottomans had been defeated at the gates of Vienna. There was a growing awareness, the military and cultural issue about the Ottomans and other Muslim groups, and there was an interest in the contrast between Christianity and Islam that prompted Prideaux’s book, but other ones like it. There were lots of Europeans and also increasingly Americans who were dealing with the threat posed by the Barbary pirates coming out of North Africa, who just made a mockery of European and American naval power for centuries.
Their business was taking European and American ships captive and taking hostages of the sailors and stealing their cargo and ransoming the hostages in particular and putting pressure on them to convert to Islam. That issue probably became the most popular topic in pop literature at the time for Europeans and Americans to read. There was an endless number of books about my time among the pirates. Sometimes these were actual people who had been held hostage by the Barbary pirates and it just worked well on a pop literature level, but it also shaped people's impressions about what Islam was. Almost invariably, these would pick the Muslim pirates and captors as just exceptionally cruel, that they were trying to get all their prisoners to convert to Islam. But all the converting required was confessing that there is one God and Muhammed is his prophet.
So, they portray Islam as being very nominal and very cruel. These sorts of things certainly shaped American Christians’ impressions of Islam for centuries.
There was also a mission's enthusiasm for Muslims, or at least in that region of the world that emerges in the early 1800s. Is that connected to the anxiety about Barbary pirates and evangelical enthusiasm for going to hard places or is something else at work in the missions drive to the Middle East or to North Africa or some of those regions?
Thomas Kidd: It's indirectly connected in the sense of raising awareness or at least impressions that American Christians have about Islam and the case of the Barbary pirates.
But the mission's movement is a broader movement that's emerging in the 1790s, early 1800s, out of a sense that Protestants had failed to get behind any kind of serious international missions movement. Much in contrast to the Catholic church that had been working on evangelizing, for instance, Native Americans for centuries, while Protestants in America, weren't doing much about that.
Some of the missions started to add Americans or people like Adoniram Judson who were going to Burma. This was a global initiative that tried to include at least nominally outreach to the Middle East and Muslim areas elsewhere. That does attract disproportionate amounts of attention in the missionary literature in Britain and America.
From the beginning of the missions movement, the Muslim world is identified as perhaps the hardest nut to crack as it were in the international missions movement. Part of that is that the Ottoman empire had legal barriers against evangelism to Muslims; it was illegal to directly evangelize Muslims.
Was it also true for the British Empire? Did they also have laws against converting citizens of the British Empire to Islam?
Thomas Kidd: No, they didn't have legal restrictions against it and for instance, there would be stories about European or American Christians being converted by the Barbary pirates because of the pirates saying they would set them free or treat them better if you convert. So, some of the Barbary captivity narratives would say things like, “There was a Catholic sailor who decided to convert to Islam, but the Protestant sailors were very brave.” They would bring in these kinds of stereotypes, anytime they could, but there were no restrictions. There was derision towards Protestants or Catholics who would convert to Islam, but not legal restrictions.
The Ottomans banned that Muslims from converting, but also just even proselytizing Muslims. What ended up happening is that British or American missionaries in the Ottoman empire often ended up working among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who they didn't consider to be converted, believing Christians.
They would set up schools, some of which were enormously influential like the American University in Beirut. Places like that that ended up being among the leading universities in a lot of the Muslim world were set up by missionaries. So, they said, “We can proselytize among these Eastern Orthodox Christians and we can do education and we can have a witness, as well as cultural influence.”
They found that it was very difficult, both legally, but also personally, to do much evangelism among Muslims and that remained the case certainly through the early 20th century. So, there was more attention given to Muslim missions in the 1800s, but not much fruit came from it in terms of Muslim conversions.
When did the first Muslim immigrants arrive in the US and how did they start to change the perception of Muslims by the church in the US?
Thomas Kidd: There were Muslim immigrants or at least Muslim-influenced immigrants from the earliest colonial period in America. But the problem is that most of them were African, and they arrived in America as enslaved people. The vast majority of those were Africans coming to America, mostly as slaves had absolutely no Christian background at all and if they had the influence of a monotheistic religion, it was often Islam, not Christianity. Some of them had some Catholic background, but it was at least as common that they would have Muslim influences in West Africa, from Muslim missionaries operating in West Africa.
Those were the first Muslim immigrants to America, but our records of them are, as you would guess, sparse to say the least and they made very little impact on the way that the white Christians were thinking about Islam in America. When you get to the mid-1800s, you start to see very small numbers of immigrants from the Muslim world, but also African-Americans and certain white Americans who would convert to Islam for various reasons.
Some of those people started to write books, apologetics for Islam, one sort of odd character; Alexander Russell Webb was a white American who converted to Islam, and he ended up making a pretty big difference about the spectacle of a white American who converts to Islam in the late 1800s.
He influenced things like the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. By that point, there was growing interest in academic circles about world religions and studying world religions objectively for more scientific purposes, to understand these religions on their terms.
So that starts to shape more of the academic and not necessarily Christian discussion of Islam in America, but the number of Muslim immigrants to America overall was quite small until 1965. When as you all know, there was a revision to American immigration law that for a variety of reasons means that there was going to be a much greater influx of immigrants from the Muslim majority world from the Middle East, some, but definitely from places like Pakistan.
Talk about the Nation of Islam. How do evangelicals begin to engage with that?
Thomas Kidd: The Nation of Islam is again an African-American-led movement coming out in the 1920s, 1930s in Midwestern cities, especially Detroit. There are a number of Pan-African nativists types of movements going on that are like the nation of Islam, but the Nation of Islam is distinctive in the fact that it portrays itself as a sort of African African-American brand of Islam. Traditional Muslims do not regard the nation of Islam as an Orthodox form of Islam. Most famously in the 1950s, you get to the conversion of Malcolm X to the nation of Islam and he becomes their most charismatic and articulate advocate. They also attract celebrity converts like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Malcolm X by the mid-1960s puts the Nation of Islam very much into the American consciousness of at least a form of Islam that is very tied up with issues about race.
That's a time of great upheavals in America about racial issues and inequality in the Civil Rights movement. Whatever white Christians might think about Martin Luther King Jr., at least he's a Christian and is interested in racial integration which moderate white Christians would probably say that probably is a good idea at some point. But even if they wanted Martin Luther King to slow down, Malcolm X was famously much more confrontational, not that interested in integration because he doesn't think that white Americans can ever trust white Christians to be true to their word and why do we want to integrate with the oppressor?
Malcolm X in the final years of his life, again, famously, rejects the Nation of Islam and converts to a more traditional form of Islam himself after his pilgrimage to Mecca and which probably resulted in his assassination, likely by members of the Nation of Islam itself. So even some members of the nation of Islam start to have doubts about its legitimacy as a form of Islam.
There are lots of pop Christianity books that do come up after 9/11 on some of that stuff. My perspective is that it seems to have dropped off over the last 20 years. I see fewer of those books these days. Is it that folks found other opponents? Is it that there are changing attitudes towards Islam or is there more familiarity?
Thomas Kidd: There has been a decline of interest in dispensational theology, generally in the American evangelical community and that would be an interesting research project for some sociologists or maybe a historian to take on about why that is, obviously it's not gone away.
The forms of dispensationalism now are probably a little less aggressive about making predictions and having the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. I certainly think on social media that it has just become a fixture in some of the circles that I observed that disparaging dispensational theology among evangelicals. That sort of thing has become as common as the promotion of dispensational theology. I try not to be dismissive about these things because I think there are understandable reactions to the horror of 9/11, but it did spur on a full-on renewed emphasis on end-times theology. Maybe this has something to do with the beginning of the end. Then as the novelty of the horror of 9/11 fades away, and you get bogged down interminable wars there's this inevitably kind of declining interest in apocalyptic interpretations of those events.
But what I've observed about trends in evangelical culture is that there is of course sustained interest in evangelism and missions in the Muslim world. It has been a fixture of evangelical culture for more than a century. But also, the Muslim versus Christian apologetics continues to be a major issue, which may be most importantly led by the late Nabeel Qureshi. If I can gauge anything by my son's YouTube video watching habits in his room, and he's watching old videos of Nabeel Qureshi talking in a relatively ironic way about his conversion from Islam to Christianity and comparing the beliefs of the two sides and why Qureshi thought that Christianity was true. But there were versions of that coming out after 9/11, that were much harder edge, like Muhammad was a pedophile, kind of impostor language about Muhammad and some of that hard-edged both end times talk and apologetics has faded a little bit, but as long as we're evangelicals, apologetics and missions will be part of the move.
The interest and attention paid to Nabeel is that he was from the Ahmadi community, which many Muslims don't even recognize as a true form of Islam. Do you know, to what extent he talked about Islam through his lens as Ahmadi and talked about that overall, or if he was much broader and how he looked and defined that?
Thomas Kidd: Muslim apologists, who you also find on YouTube, denounced Nabeel Qureshi. They would, among many things, say that he was a heretic in his family anyway so what difference does it make that this aberrant Muslim converted to Christianity? So, I think that Qureshi noted that in his work, but also tried to portray himself as someone who understood the differences between Sunni and Ahmadi and those different branches of Islam, but that he's trying to introduce American Christians generally to what Islam is as a whole and why Christianity is superior.
What are the ways in which evangelical Christians have actively participated in or enabled the wave of Islamophobia that we've seen at various times, especially in the past 20 years?
Thomas Kidd: There was a burst of not uniquely evangelical Islamophobia after 9/11, some evangelicals piled on; Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and there was a Southern Baptist leader who said that Muhammad was a demon-possessed pedophile in the years after 9/11.
People were angry about 9/11, including me, and when you're angry, you say incautious things. These are places where there are plenty of polls that will show that white evangelicals, which usually are whites with a negative impression of Islam. I'm sure that that reflects something that's going on the ground in evangelical churches. But we also know that usually, these polls are very imprecise about who counts as an evangelical.
Maybe that just means somebody who considers themselves religious and they watch Fox news and if you press yes or no by a pollster, are you an evangelical? They have negative views about Islam. I don't think usually those things tell us much that's very interesting. There are plenty of important evangelical leaders who people like Timothy George, who wrote a very fine book about the debate, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? that I think is a very careful, intelligent, evangelical approach to this question because there are very fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam. Traditional Muslims and traditional Christians affirm that the view of the Trinity, for instance, that's a totally different view of Jesus, totally different. Of course, many Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God.
Some people from the outside of evangelical culture would regard any kind of statement of fundamental difference as a species of Islamophobia. I don't but saying that Muhammad was a demon-possessed paedophile, I would. So that kind of extreme inflammatory language is unnecessary.
So, I always feel like we've got to figure out which evangelicals are we talking about and how do we know that they're evangelicals? It usually is a little more complicated than a poll would suggest
One example that I think definitely squarely involves evangelicals happened in the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago, with regards to our Christianity Today colleague Russell Moore and his former ministry, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which he led, which was at that time doing a lot of religious freedom advocating specifically that also looked at finding common cause for Muslims. Can you talk a little bit about that controversy that happened there?
Thomas Kidd: One of the specific controversies was about the ERLC supporting a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee that had run afoul of some local zoning ordinances. This happens to churches too, that relatively less sympathetic city boards will not allow churches to be built for ostensibly zoning reasons that happen to mosques too. Russell Moore and the ERLC said, “If we're going to support churches in this sort of thing, we also need to support mosques and synagogues if that happens to them and other faith groups who are trying to build buildings and facing bureaucratic harassment.”
There was a significant outcry in the Southern Baptist Convention and in other more fundamentalists types of circles that “this means that Russell Moore and his crowd are Muslim sympathizers.” But I think that there would have been broad support among many pastors in that Southern Baptist Convention for Moore’s position because of the historic Baptist commandment to religious liberty and so going back to the founding period, even people like John Leland, the great Baptist evangelist, and advocate of religious liberty, and friend of Thomas Jefferson in those days was saying that religious liberty is for all religious groups and that evangelicals and Baptists should support a free market of religion because if you do, the gospel will win, to me obviously, sympathetic to what Moore was doing in that case. That was one of many reasons as you all well know that Moore got flagged in the SBC and ultimately decided to leave.
Another thing that was a big cultural flashpoint to pick on that we were talking earlier about, was Bush mentioning that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I would love to hear more about how those comments were treated as well as talk about the Larycia Hawkins episode at Wheaton, where she is a Wheaton College professor, with similar remarks to that and how that was all handled.
Thomas Kidd: On the Bush issue, I admire what Bush was trying to do. I appreciate that as we just talked at the beginning about the ambivalences and tensions that he's trying to negotiate. I don't think anyone would mistake George W. Bush for a great theologian. His efforts to be kind and generous and set the right tone were sometimes a bit ham-handed theologically, even some more broad-minded evangelical folks would say, “If you're saying that Islam had Christian roots, that it was partly drawing on that, that's true” and maybe if the idea is that when Muslims refer to God, they're referring to the same God that Christians are referring to and the Jews are referring to.
But worship, Jesus talked about God looking for worshipers who worship in spirit and truth, don't, you have to have a baseline correct theology before you can accurately worship. Those are legitimate evangelical questions that even people like Timothy George based in divinity school, were raising about, “if the idea is we want to be as kind and generous to our Muslim neighbors as we possibly can. Yes, absolutely. But we also need to recognize that there are theological gulfs between Christians and Muslims that just can't be bridged, especially about Trinity, about the way of salvation, those are pretty important things.”
The Larycia Hawkins episode is another type of flashpoint over that about how much accommodation can be made toward Islam and evangelical context and anything that smacks of, the differences don't matter that much, we should just love people at some point, that's going to run up against traditional evangelical belief and it's not going to work anymore. For me as an evangelical and a scholar of evangelicals, the trick is always how do you balance kindness, charity, and love of neighbor with a kind of sobriety about the deep theological difference between these religious traditions and they're not the same. There are opposites on some very important issues. As usual, Christians tend to go to one extreme or the other on those types of questions.