Images of what a 24-year-old, white male did at a mosque in Christchurch, reminded me of something: “We have seen the face of evil and it is us.” I also recalled a similar incident much closer to home. It happened in the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina, one hour from where my wife, Carol, and I lived for sixteen years. A 21-year old white male killed nine African-Americans during a prayer service in one of America’s oldest black churches. This became known as the Charleston Church Massacre. The two incidents have several things in common: Both were done by white supremacists, both attackers said they wanted to start a race war, and both were carried out while people prayed.
It has often been said that the greatest threat in the 21st century is Islamic terrorism. It is a threat, but so is bigotry, hatred and racism toward others who are different than we are—different because they don’t look like us, believe like us, think like us or behave like us. Islamophobia can easily morph into Muslim phobia, and in certain contexts, Muslims are a persecuted minority.
During the 1990s, Serbs (Christians) massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys, in what is now known as the worst atrocity in Europe since WW2. And who can forget Rohingya Muslims? Hundreds of thousands, driven from their homes, fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, their women raped and their houses burning behind. Myanmar (Burma) is predominantly a Buddhist country who has denied them citizenship, refusing even to recognize them as people. And there is China’s Uighur Muslims. Over one million held in internment camps, while the claim is made that they are being re-educated and put through professional training. The truth is they are being bullied, harassed, manipulated and tortured for being Muslim.
In our context, attitudes toward Muslims took a tumble following 9-11, and evangelicals have not helped much. I wrote an article for Christianity Today in 2006, “Unveiling the Truth About Islam,” examining several Christian book titles that provided an unfavorable portrayal of Islam and Muslims. I said, “Unfortunately, many of these evangelical polemics are historically inaccurate, theologically misinformed, and missiologically misguided. Apparently, a lot of us simply dislike Muslims (usually without knowing any).” There is no question that such negative appraisals of Islam have worsened Muslim-Christian relations. Christians have been influenced by these, and other books, thus making ongoing violence and conflict more likely, and adversely affecting our Christian witness.
All this is not to deny the intense Muslim persecution of Christians globally. Though North Korea is the prime offender, as is China, often Muslim-majority countries are also on the list. Thousands of Nigerian Christians are being slaughtered by Muslim militants as we speak. Living in Pakistan for 23 years, I saw first hand Christians under fire. Girls are routinely abducted and forced to marry Muslim men. My own brother-in-law suffered permanent hearing loss when militants attacked the church where he worshiped on a Sunday morning. And then there is the case of Asia Bibi, who spent ten years in prison due to brutal blasphemy laws. Even though exonerated by the Supreme Court, she has not been allowed to leave the country. The street power of Muslim extremists is holding the country hostage, and ordinary Muslims don’t dare say much.
Yet I know both Muslims and Christians can do better. Many of us will never forget the pictures of Muslims and Christians encircling one another in Cairo’s largest evangelical church during the Arab Spring. They were protecting one another so that they could pray. And I will always remember the warmth of my Pakistani Muslim friends, especially in 1979. Our family was attacked by a Muslim mob, who had believed that a takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was the work of Americans and Jews. Vehicles were burned, furniture smashed, literature destroyed, but God miraculously saved our lives. When it was all over, Muslim friends and neighbors hugged me, expressing their grief and love. It was because of their welcome that our family stayed on and continued missionary work for many more years.
If we want Muslims to stand up for Christians against Islamic terrorists, we need to speak up and stand up, when they are targeted. The challenge for all of us is to critique our own and stand up for those who suffer, wherever they are. Christians need to critique Christians and Muslims need to critique Muslims. Didn’t Jesus say, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”? We must, therefore, take the initiative and respond with courteous acts of kindness, warmth and generosity to Muslims in our midst and around the world. This we must do so that everyone has religious freedom. Albert Einstein put it this way: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”