What do you believe? How do you decide what you believe?
Is it because you read it somewhere, someone you know and trust told it to you, or you witnessed or experienced something that led you to draw a particular conclusion?
And, how do you determine the “sources of authority” from which you are more or less likely to draw your views? From a particular media source, material you have read or people you know?
What led them to draw their conclusions that they have passed on to you? What have they read or been taught? To whom are they loyal, and why?
Did they have a negative experience with an individual or group and, as a result, are more likely to hold a negative view of a particular political or religious community?
How might your view be changed? What would need to happen for you to change your opinion?
In the past couple of weeks, I have travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and met many young people, mainly evangelical Christians, who are passionate about their faith and want to see their countries transformed as a result.
We sang songs of God’s love for all people and the desire for his kingdom to be demonstrated here on earth.
They were encouraged to be a light in their communities and to pray that others might come closer to God.
However, I heard several influential Christian leaders express the view that Daesh (IS/ISIS) is “at last demonstrating the ‘true face of Islam.'”
While rejecting all that Daesh stands for, there was a sense in which they respected Daesh for at least being “honest about the true teachings and practice of Islam – in contrast to some kind of ‘sanitized expression of Islam’ that ‘more moderate Muslims’ may wish to present.”
These students, having grown up in the church, are trying to work out not only what to believe about their own faith but also how to relate to those of different faiths. In this case, their Muslims friends or colleagues with whom they interact daily at school or university.
How are they meant to respond to these views about Islam? How do they choose what to believe?
They value the love their leaders have shown to them over the years. They recognize that their own faith – to which they hold strongly – is, to a large extent, a result of the commitment of their leaders who have loved and served them faithfully.
And yet, their own experience – of friendships formed with Muslims at school, university and elsewhere – seems to show them a radically different perspective.
How are they to make sense of such competing narratives?
First, it is critical not to negate the experiences of others, be they positive or negative.
The Christian population of the region has faced tremendous challenges at the hands of radical extremist Muslims.
But at what point do the past experiences of some become a socially held view by the whole community, perpetuated generation after generation?
If faced with someone who is giving a very strong view about a particular group, it might be worth asking what their motivation for doing so might be.
A willingness to attack the beliefs or practices of another religious (or political) group often results from misplaced loyalty to one’s own particular group – a view that suggests one cannot truly belong to his or her “own group” unless he or she is somehow attacking “another group.”
This may be informing the claim that one is either a “real Muslim,” in which case of course one will support Daesh; or one is a “moderate Muslim,” in which case he or she is not really practicing the faith or is trying to deceive people into a naive view of Islam.
This is a deeply flawed view that leads to further division between communities. Being a Christian cannot mean being against Islam.
Being a Christian and being a Muslim are not the same, and we don’t have identical understandings of the God we worship.
Yet, the manner by which I relate to and respond to Muslims (and Islam) should be based on a serious reflection of the person of Jesus and of the way he related to those from different traditions than his own.
Pope Francis’ recent comments about how “it is more Christian to build bridges that to build walls” rings true.
By not taking at face value what they have been taught, young people are better able to navigate the complexities of diverse belief systems and are more likely to confront the often sectarian, prejudiced and polemic views of others.
The Institute of Middle East Studies helps facilitate an interfaith initiative called “The Feast,” which uses a set of dialogue guidelines, three of which are helpful here:
1. To not tell others what they believe, but let them tell me.
Without knowing people from different religious or political communities, it is more likely that we will buy into the negative stereotypes.
2. To be honest in what we say.
It is inherently complex to describe, let alone define, any particular religion – as if there can possibly be one all-encompassing narrative that is accepted by all members of a religion.
Are we prepared to do our homework when it comes to what we say about other belief systems, or do we accept what we have been told at face value?
3. To not judge people here by what some people of their faith do.
This is an all too common problem, but one that we should all reflect on if we do not want to be guilty of racism, bigotry and scapegoating.
Arthur Brown is associate director of youth initiatives at the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.