We no longer need to travel internationally to encounter Muslims. In the United States, Muslims are living in our neighborhoods and working in our cities.
Like our ancestors who emigrated from many lands, this growing population segment belongs among us, for they too are Americans.
How should we Baptists relate to this Muslim minority? One approach, totally unproductive and damaging, is to react with fear and stereotyping. ExposÃ©s claiming to reveal Muslim plans for global dominance or explain the violent character of Islam are sold in popular bookstores. Internet stories about Muhammad or his followers are distributed, often without regard for whether they are factual reports, urban legends, political propaganda or hate-mongering.
In the aftermath of 9-11, many Americans are anxious about this growing ethnic and religious pluralism. A gnawing fearfulness expresses itself in gross generalizations. This reaction is uncivil and unchristian, yet sadly Baptists have not always been guiltless.
Fomenting fear of Muslims by making stereotypical observations and false accusations — or uncritically forwarding such inflammatory material — will not encourage peace. May we never build walls when we ought to construct bridges.
A second approach to Muslims is to act with indifference or toleration. Perhaps we believe tolerating differences is the best way because as a moral solution tolerance has impressive support. Philosophers like Plato and Kant and religious teachers like Confucius and Shantideva famously taught a benign regard for others. But the problem with toleration is that it may just be a polite word for “indifference.”
We can tolerate people whom we don’t really like and haven’t even attempted to approach. Being tolerant cannot guarantee that we become true neighbors. Tolerance becomes indifference if our attitude morphs from “we all have a right to be ourselves” to “they can just be whoever they want.” When we think in “us” and “them” categories, a chasm exists between ourselves and the “other,” and we may never cross it.
Some Baptists regrettably practice only toleration, mistaking the philosophical norm for the ethic of Christ, which is more demanding. We must not merely tolerate Muslims, much less treat them with indifference, as if they do not matter to God or to us.
How, then, should Baptists relate to Muslims? We need to respond with compassion and friendship. Jesus models this approach to others; he crossed barriers that separated respectable folk from outcasts of his society. Toward some persons whom many merely tolerated, and others who were feared, stereotyped or violently oppressed — Gentiles, Samaritans, the demon-possessed and morally fallen — Jesus was forgiving and befriending.
Although we should be Christ-like toward everyone, there is a special reason to treat Muslims well, for they are part of our extended family. Both our peoples claim a common forefather, Abraham. Moreover, while we understand God differently, we worship the same deity — “Allah” simply being the Arabic word meaning “God.” Finally, the Quran rests upon the very foundation of prophets from Moses to Jesus that grounds our faith, so that it is not unreasonable — and quite common — to consider Muslims our monotheistic faith “cousins.”
To some Baptists, however, Muslims just represent “long-lost cousins” — candidates for Christian conversion. Certainly we Baptists should look for opportunities to share the joy, purpose and hope we’ve experienced through the person and path of Jesus. Yet, our fervor must never cause us to be insensitive or unkind.
So I wish to emphasize another paradigm besides evangelism for relating to Muslims. What if, instead of thinking of them as “long-lost cousins,” we considered them our “distant cousins?” Perhaps that reclassification could lead us to the prior responsibility of knowing our “cousins,” becoming friends, drawing these distant relatives closer.
This shift does not eliminate the possibility nor lessen the importance of sharing faith because friendship evangelism is the most effective means of witness to anyone, but especially to those who are different culturally and religiously.
Friendships entail communication, both talking and listening — dialogue not monologue. Cooperation more likely occurs where mutual esteem and genuine caring flourish. Last January, I was one of 40 Baptists who met with 40 Muslims in Boston for the National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue. By following guidelines for interreligious relations, we were able to move beyond differences to acknowledge our common goal of neighborliness.
The Baptists discovered that we don’t possess all the answers to life’s mystery, for we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). And the Muslims realized that our theological non-negotiables don’t have to squelch relationship-building. This liberating perspective calls for each to celebrate what we do understand, but also accept what we may not know fully because of our particular religious tradition.
When we risk showing compassion and forging new friendships with Muslims, these distant cousins will no longer be strangers. Such a bonding can provide an experience of real transcendence, for in acting toward Muslim neighbors in a godly fashion, we will be enriched by the evidences of God in them.
Rob Sellers is professor of missions at Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas. He and his wife, Janie, were missionaries in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, for almost a quarter century.