One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the world is still struggling with the same questions concerning Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
Can Muslims and Christians coexist in peace? Is there a government structure that protects both communities and treats them with equity? Is Islam inherently violent and incapable of reform? Can the Middle East ever be cured of religious intolerance?
These are complex questions that require historical research and careful analysis, not a simple yes or no response based on uncritical observations.
Rather than attempt to answer these questions, I would like to offer some thoughts that might recalibrate the attitude of Christians toward the reality on the ground:
1. We do not have an option not to coexist.
Jesus’ prayer to the Father when his disciples were about to face religious intolerance was “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
Christians are not called to withdraw from the world or isolate themselves in order to survive. In fact, Christ assured his disciples that they would have hardship as they live out their faith.
In other words, if coexistence comes with challenges, and it usually does, it does not mean that we can abandon that endeavor in search of a safer and more homogenous community.
2. Just as the peace of God came at a heavy price (Isaiah 53:5), we should expect the peace that we seek to bring to our society to be costly as well.
In a recent Institute of Middle East Studies’ post, Martin Accad explained that “the kind of peace inaugurated by Christ will only be fulfilled as a result of peacemakers being willing to pay the ultimate price for their calling.”
Peaceful coexistence is desirable, and we should always seek it, but we must be aware that it comes with sacrifices, and more importantly, we must be willing to make those sacrifices.
3. While coexistence is desirable and we should always seek it, we should not pursue it by any means possible.
Many groups have used violence, coercion or malpractice to establish themselves firmly in the region. Other groups have reached out to regional or international powers for support and protection, often in ways that aggravate the equilibrium of coexistence.
As Christians, we should not compromise the teachings of Jesus for the sake of self-protection. Nor should we seek foreign intervention that betrays our witness.
Jesus offered us a great example when he did not retaliate against the armed mob that came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, nor did he call for help from the legion of angels that were at his service (Matthew 26:53).
4. Religion is a complex phenomenon and reforming it goes beyond developing a new hermeneutic or promoting a revisionist approach to holy texts.
There are various social, economic and political factors that affect how religions evolve and why they reform. It is simplistic to try and push for a reformation with a single-track agenda.
If the political, social and economic situation in the Middle East does not change, any reformation of Islam will not be sustainable.
5. Frankly, it is not our business whether Islam can or will reform.
Nor should our attitude toward Muslims change whether Islam reforms or not.
Our responsibility is to point to the truth and to lead others to the knowledge of God in Christ. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he was not distracted by her faith or actions. His motivation and goal were to define true worship. (John 4:23)
6. Above all, we must guard our hearts.
In our age where protectionism, xenophobia and fear-mongering politics are on the rise, it is easy to dehumanize the other, particularly Muslims. Yet, our message is one of love and embrace.
We must grow in our love for God so that we overflow with love for the other.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Elias Ghazal is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Association for Theological Education (MENATE).