Christians Partnering with Muslims
In September, I spent the better part of a week in the Mile High City, where, among other things, I gasped for air at high altitude and met up with Peace Catalyst International colleagues. We came from Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Louisville, Raleigh, and various other points of origin, desiring to enrich our plotting and scheming toward peacemaking and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.
(PCI was founded in 2010. We recently received our official 501c3 status.)
Our second annual staff gathering, the sessions and conversations addressed pressing intersections of what PCI refers to as "Jesus-centered peacemaking." By this we mean: the desire to keep our peacemaking initiatives and our Christian witness together, as part of our message and story.
We believe that the gospel narrative—not to mention the "logic of the ministry of Jesus" (David Bosch)—is a vision encompassing God's reconciliation of all things. Peacemaking belongs to the gospel as much as witness; in fact, peacemaking is a form of witness. So PCI works hard to hold peacemaking and witness together, in tension, not in competition.
In Denver, then, surrounded by the storied Rocky Mountains, new stories were told—inspired tales of a Jesus-centered peacemaking. Mostly, these stories revealed intentional acts of friendship, love, and service in the name of Jesus to Muslims who are refugees, international students, and professionals in the U.S.
For instance, through PCI, Christians in an evangelical mega-church in Phoenix are coming alongside Somali refugees, learning how to welcome and bless this particular Muslim neighbor. Through PCI, Christians in the context of the University of California-Davis are initiating a long-term endeavor called "Communities of Reconciliation." Through PCI, Christians in Seattle honored their Bosnian Muslim neighbors by joining them at the mosque for a genocide commemoration ceremony.
These stories are, of course, only baby steps through a bewildering landscape. Nonetheless, our humble hope is to empower a change-affecting movement among Christians and Muslims for the sake of the common good.
In his "State of the Movement" reflection, Rick Love, co-founder and president of PCI, urged us "to excel still more"—to take our peacemaking work to the proverbial next level. In a word, this involves the ultimate challenge of partnership.
Look again within the above stories of Christians engaging Muslims—
There is self-giving love and service; there is beautiful friendship and a spirit of learning; there is even solidarity with the vulnerable and the marginalized. I believe that each of these peacemaking gestures has something uniquely important to communicate regarding a comprehensive Christian witness among Muslims.
That being said, PCI is attempting to go further. Rick exhorted, "As Christians, making peace in a glocalized world demands Muslim partners." Demands Muslim partners? I suppose, in some quarters, especially in the powerful cultural halls of conservative American evangelicalism, a person can already hear the large-scale murmuring, the impassioned stammering, the inevitable gnashing of teeth.
Which begs the question: Wouldn't you like to see normative Muslims get beyond the mere condemnation of violent extremism? Wouldn't you like to hear among normative Muslims a deeper commitment to and more courageous advocacy for religious freedom in Muslim-majority societies? Me too. Which is precisely why strong partnerships between Christians and Muslims must be an essential part of any answer worth its actual social change.
Thomas Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, has written: "The Islamic State (ISIS) has, for the moment, riveted the world’s attention. Will governments and societies, including the United States, begin to take seriously the need for religious freedom as a means of undermining violent religious extremism?" Good question. PCI's sense is that Christians who learn how to effectively partner with Muslims can bring this partnership to bear on exactly these interconnected matters: an increase in religious freedom and a decrease in violent extremism.
On the other hand, if evangelicals and other Christians persist in maintaining a personal policy or religious policy or denominational policy or organizational policy of embattled, angry engagement with Muslims—animated. as it is, by apocalyptic levels of anxiety and fear; marked, as it is, by ugly religious superiority and even uglier racial prejudice—then I imagine the time-sensitive and times-sensitive opportunity will be lost.
However, partnerships between Christians and Muslims are far from easy. In reality, Christian-Muslim partnerships are often a bit un-easy.
For example, in May, in Washington D.C., inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, on behalf of PCI, I joined a multi-faith group of religious leaders around an enlarged version of a board-room lunch table. It was a high-octane occasion in which I found myself sitting between George Selim, a staff person with the White House National Security Council, and Azizah al-Hibri, a former law professor at the University of Richmond and the founder and president of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.
(Not your everyday lunch, to be sure. Although, in this lunch's defense, chicken was served.)
The event was sponsored and hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. Initiated in 2010, the campaign "works not only on a national level, but offers strategies and support to local and regional efforts to address anti-Muslim sentiment," including Islamophobia. Along with faith-based entities like the Episcopal Church USA, American Baptist Churches USA, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, PCI is a partner-member in the campaign.
On this day in the nation's capital, the campaign's honored guest was Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. A renowned Arab Muslim scholar originally from eastern Mauritania, bin Bayyah now lives in Saudi Arabia and teaches at King Abdul Aziz University.
In one particularly poignant remark, the shaykh used the analogy of mad cow disease to discuss Muslim extremists in contrast to normative Muslims. "Mad cow disease in England," he said, "does not mean that all cows everywhere have the disease."
Furthermore, and quite significantly, in laying out a few ideas for institutional and cultural change, he went on to emphasize that it was not "modern values" as applied to Muslim societies that would induce healthy change. Instead, he said, change would come through a recovery of religious values drawn out of the religious source material. Most definitely, there is a critical debate to be had here.
Sometime later, after the delicious chicken, after the ubiquitous interfaith photograph, and while riding aboard the Metro, I thought about how badly PCI and its peacemaking perspective needs to be represented around fancy lunch tables like this. Especially with regard to countering violent extremism and increasing religious freedom, PCI (and other Christians)—in an effort to "make every effort to live at peace with everyone"—must catalyze these sorts of partner-relationships with Muslims.
Were there certain moments when I disagreed with the shaykh? Yes. Given the shaykh's associations, was I concerned about my own association? Yes.
Christian-Muslim partnerships contain inter-religious and intercultural complexities. They are subject to heavy historical baggage even as they are contextualized daily by atmospheric conditions in Egypt and Iraq, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, France and the U.S.
But all the disagreements and potentially risky associations, all the historical baggage and atmospheric conditions, only serve to provide a more robust argument for the necessity of partnership. And the patient truth is, more and better possibilities emerge from the dynamic complexity of partnership—including, in this case, being afforded the opportunity to ask very hard questions of a Muslim leader who influences Muslim scholars in the Arab world who influence Muslim preachers all around the world.