Stumbling blocks that inhibit ministry to Muslims include fear, obtaining information from biased and sensationalized sources, and in-groups being prejudiced against out-groups. Fortunately, these hindrances can be addressed, and solutions exist that can move Christians toward being better prepared for outreach. Christians have been provided not only with Biblical mandates, but they have also been provided with the example of Jesus.
Some Christians have actually tried to move their congregations into a more loving direction toward Muslims, but this has sometimes been met with resistance and backlash. For example, In a post-9/11 bid to better relations with Muslims, pastor Bob Roberts invited Muslims to his North Wood Church in Keller, TX, for Q&A sessions and a cooking club and to help on a few home remodeling projects. The result: Roberts lost ‘a bunch of church members,’ he said. In Denver, pastor Max Frost asked volunteers to help paint a local mosque. Friends and family told him it was a bad idea. And at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN, Nancy McCurley started an interfaith scripture study with Muslims, only to be told by a critic that ‘in a year’s time, this church will be a mosque.’
The stumbling block that seems to be the most crippling for Christians is fear. One Christian woman, Esther, admitted the magnitude of this when she described, “I told God, ‘I love Muslims,’ she says. ‘But he convicted me. He said to me, ‘You don’t love them. You don’t even like them.’ And we don’t. If we did, more…believers would be sharing with Muslims. We don’t love them. And we are afraid. Let’s be honest: We are afraid of this giant called Islam.”
The barrier of fear must be addressed and removed for Christian witness to be effective, because Sherman A. Lee shares, “Fear is a unique emotion in that it activates escape and avoidance motivated behavior…Research on post-911 sentiment has shown that fear is a significant predictor of support for policies designed to avoid or escape contact with Muslims.”
For Christians, it is imperative that they receive their information and worldview not from slanted and exaggerated news stories, but from the Bible. Scripture reveals the way Christians should approach and handle fear. In specific response to the persecution the early Christians were facing, Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7 that God has not given believers a spirit of fear, but one of love. Because of this, believers can be bold in their witness despite persecution. Furthermore, the most often repeated command in the Bible is “fear not” or “do not fear.” Many Christians view Muslims as the enemy, but Carl Medearis suggests Christians identify the real enemy, “The real enemy is fear. Fear is the devil’s workshop. Perfect fear drives out love. Did you catch that? Fear drives out love. It’s supposed to be the other way around, but it works both ways. Only one remains. Fear or love.”
This battle between fear and love was clearly demonstrated in several experiences when I visited churches wearing a headscarf. An older gentleman at the first church visited, who was a greeter at the church, was not able to recover from his fear after seeing a woman wearing a hijab approaching the church. As a result, he blatantly ignored me, which came across as very unloving. In this instance, fear drove out love. On the other hand, at the second church visited, a woman was hesitant at first and kept her distance. She was uncertain as to how to react, but eventually she made the decision to allow love to triumph over fear. Although she initially sat at a distance from me, she eventually moved down to sit directly beside me, engaged her in conversation, and hugged me before leaving. In this case, love drove out fear. In another scenario, I walked into a large lobby and was clearly confused as to which direction to go for the service. At least three greeters and volunteers stood around and watched me, clearly lost. Evidently the volunteers were scared or unsure of what to do, so they did not help, and instead let the me wander around. In contrast, at the fourth church visited, I was once again lost, but this time a greeter overcame fear and helped. He personally gave me a tour of the entire church so I would know how to find my way around. Lastly, at the first church, when instructed to greet those nearby, a woman half-turned toward the me, but upon seeing the the hijab she hesitated and almost turned back around. Fortunately, she managed to overcome fear and made the decision to greet the me despite her initial uncertainty.
Some Christians would like to set parameters as to how far love is required to extend, and use fear to justify not loving their enemies. In the research conducted for this paper, one survey respondent said, “I realize that all Muslims are not radical, but how do you tell? It’s a little unsettling.” Another survey respondent described, “I know my views are stereotypical, but I have fear of not knowing if a Muslim is a violent one or non-violent. I will be nervous until I find out [my] fears are unfounded.” Jesus did not provide an exclusion clause for not loving those who are radical, violent, or considered enemies. Matthew 10:28 commands, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” There is nothing in Scripture that says believers should prioritize self-preservation over the commands to love neighbors and enemies.
Furthermore, in Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus gives the mandate, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Clearly, Jesus never attempted to conceal that believers would face persecution. In fact, if Jesus wanted to change his stance about loving his enemies, an opportune time would have been while he was being tortured and dying on the cross. Instead, his heart broke for his persecutors and he prayed in Luke 23:34 for those who were persecuting and killing him when he pleaded, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Wayne Gordon relays, “Jesus makes it very clear, in the Sermon on the Mount, that even if we do consider other people our enemies, it is still our responsibility to love them.” This was a consistent theme throughout his ministry, and Jesus did not waver from this even while on the cross. Because Christians are supposed to follow Jesus’ example, they cannot conveniently designate someone an enemy and attempt to justify not loving them.
The Bible is full of radical commands, but love of enemy is one of the most neglected. Jesus and Paul instructed throughout the New Testament, “Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Overcome evil with good.” There is an important reason for this radical peacemaking behavior, which is the hope that the persecutors will be perplexed by the believer’s loving response, which might provide a means for the believer to lead them toward the truth and love of Christ.
Therefore, neither fear nor danger are worthy excuses to justify not loving someone. Wayne Gordon reminds believers, “Sometimes I think that, in our American lifestyle and Western culture, we’ve become obsessed with safety, almost to a point where risk-taking has become a lost art…I challenge you to pay more attention to the situations that scare you and the people of whom you are afraid. Perhaps you fear for your physical safety…Perhaps your fears are well founded, perhaps not. Remember that the antidote to fear is faith…I believe that as we grow in our faith, we become less fearful and more bold—more able to face and overcome our fears. Look around you. Who are those people you are too afraid to help? Whom do you shy away from because you are afraid? Remember that they are God’s children and your neighbors…We need to come to terms with the fact that danger is a part of our faith. It comes with the territory. Our faith does not revolve around safety, nor does it grow if safety is our only concern. Rather, it is rooted in obedience and in sensitivity to God’s leading. Who are those people who might be dangerous to help? Remember, they are your neighbors.”
Bill Hybels recounted the story of how one man overcame fear by simply walking across a room, which changed another man’s life forever. This Christian man saw a Muslim man at a business meeting and went over and introduced himself. They began dialoguing and the Muslim man later accepted Christ. Overcoming fear is the first step in Muslim ministry.
In the same vein, for the participant observation portion of this study, I encountered several Christians who were willing to step outside of their comfort zones and reach out. Many of them attempted to find commonality by initiating conversations with simple questions such as, “Do you like coffee?” or “Did you come here alone today, too?” Some started conversations with kind words such as, “I am so glad you are here,” or “Can I speak with you for a moment? I just wanted to tell you that I was admiring your outfit.” Others inquired where the I was from, and mentioned that they had been to the Middle East before, or that they had Muslim friends. In truth, it did not really matter what they said, but that they took time to reach out and say something. Even though no one said anything unkind or derogatory, sometimes being deliberately ignored or being gawked at were just as hurtful and made a lasting negative impression.
Surprisingly, despite the fear that many Christians seem to possess toward Muslims, when asked if they would feel prepared and comfortable if they saw a Muslim woman wearing a head covering in their church, fifty-six indicated that they would. Only twenty-nine said they would feel “unprepared and uncomfortable.” This was actually in line with the participant observation portion of this study. Three out of four churches did remarkably well in their hospitality toward a woman they perceived to be a Muslim in their presence. Only one church consistently came across as unfriendly and cold. In contrast, three other churches had greeters and members who were welcoming, helpful, and friendly. One survey response comment for this study provided a potential explanation as to why this was the result despite the negative perception of Muslims, “Although I answered most of these questions negatively, I am open to learning more about Muslims and Islam. I deeply fear the growth of Islam and believe as Christians we should be willing to witness to ALL people.” Therefore, perhaps the Great Commission succeeded in trumping some Christians’ fears.
However, the participant observation revealed an area that could benefit from further exploration, because several factors might have contributed to the positive outcome. For example, the I would typically arrive early and sit alone. Therefore, most people were given the option as to whether to choose to sit near the perceived Muslim woman, or to avoid her and sit elsewhere. As a result, the people sitting nearby intentionally sat there, and it was discovered that some of them were missionaries or had close friendships with Muslims. Thus, I tended to attract people who were comfortable with Muslims. Only one church was an exception where greeters and church members were relatively unfriendly and unhelpful. However, this was the one church where I did not arrive early and people were forced to sit nearby her if they arrived late.
Moving forward, the article “Grace and Truth” reminds believers that, “The commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ has not been rescinded…There is no separate gospel for wartime and peacetime. The message of God’s love in Christ is for all times, places and peoples.” If Christians are looking for a reason not to love Muslims, they might find it in the news, but they will not find it in the Bible. Christians’ only enemy should be Satan, not Muslims. Georges Houssney makes it clear that Satan’s plan is quite simple when it comes to Muslim ministry, “Satan would love for us to believe that Muslims are unreachable in order to discourage us and instill a spirit of defeat into God’s children. Until we have given Muslims the opportunity to hear the Gospel we cannot say that Muslims are resistant.” Satan will use fear as a weapon to prevent Christians from reaching out to Muslims, but Christians can successfully wield faith to thwart this.
Another way that Christians can overcome fear and be better prepared for outreach is through education. Too many Christians are obtaining their information from biased and fear-eliciting news programs, but receiving fair and accurate information is crucial. The surveys received for this paper indicated that the news was the primary vehicle for how Christians obtain their information about Muslims. Fifty-seven respondents out of eighty-seven said that they primarily learn about Muslims from television news programs, radio news, newspapers, or Internet news. One man who viewed Muslims positively wrote on his survey for this study, “Americans would be better informed about Muslims if they would turn off the news.”
The Pew Research Center revealed that fifty-eight percent of Americans acknowledge that they know nothing or only a minimal amount about Islam, and that number “has changed very little since 2001.” This information is important to consider, because several studies have indicated that the roles education and knowledge play are significant in impacting prejudice. One study reveals, “Education and knowledge may disprove prejudicial beliefs…It can be argued that higher education will decrease Islamophobic attitudes.”
Moreover, many Christians desire to know more about Muslims and Islam. When asked if they would be interested in learning more about Muslims and Islam in church, an overwhelming majority (seventy-five out of eighty-seven) said they would be interested in learning more. Yet, only four out of eighty-seven respondents indicated that church was a source for how they receive information about Muslims. Clearly, Christians desire to learn more about Muslims and Islam from their church leaders, so perhaps churches need to consider educating their members in a fair and loving way about Muslims. In addition, Christians were asked if they had more information about Muslims and Islam if it would increase or decrease their comfort level interacting with Muslims, and sixty-six said they believed it would increase their comfort level. Sixteen said they worried it would decrease their comfort level, but one person who selected “decrease” added a comment that might perhaps explain why. She shared, “I operate largely from wanting to trust all people and give them the benefit of the doubt, but the news suggests there could be much more danger than I want to think about” (emphasis added). Thus, it seems plausible that perhaps people have received so much negative rhetoric about Muslims already that they fear if they consume more information it will only increase their fears.
In contrast, most survey respondents agreed that more information would be beneficial, “I have…taken a class about Islam and Muslims which helped me to learn and understand a bit better.” Others were open to the idea and desired more education, “[I] would like to learn more about Muslims,” one responded. Another survey respondent mentioned, “I feel that I have not been educated in the Muslim religion and have only been fearful of the Middle East in general. When I think of Muslims, I think of the Middle East and the many bad things that have happened and continue to happen. I don’t think I am alone in this.” This is similar to what studies have indicated that, “…attitudes about different ethnic groups are more likely to be negative at low levels of education and knowledge.” As was indicated earlier, typically the perception of Muslims in America does not align with the reality, and Christians need to be aware of this and obtain more accurate and fair information about Islam and Muslims.
Finally, this leads to the third means of being better prepared for ministry with Muslims. As a brief recap, the first step is overcoming fear and increasing faith, the second is acquiring more knowledge from fair and reasonable sources about Muslims and Islam, and the third is to follow Jesus’ example in conquering barriers between groups by initiating direct contact with outsiders. At this third juncture, it is important to understand how Jesus intentionally broke down barriers to reach outsiders.
Previously, it was demonstrated that higher levels of religiosity actually create prejudice because it creates an “in-group” versus “out-group” mindset. As a result, Christians tend to be more prejudiced because of their in-group status. Interestingly, out-groups existed during Jesus’ time as well, and he has provided an example for believers to follow as to how to treat outsiders. During Jesus’ time, the Samaritans would have been considered an out-group. Three primary examples of Jesus’ interactions with Samaritans are demonstrated in Scripture, which can be utilized as examples for the church.
To begin, it is important to understand the animosity between Samaritans and Judeans. Philip F. Esler explains, “For centuries Judeans had treated the Samaritans as a despised outgroup and subjected them to the processes of negative stereotypification….Stereotyping refers to the process of treating all members of an outgroup as if they were the same.” There were ethnic differences between Judeans and Samaritans, and there were also religious differences. Samaritans worshiped Yahweh, but they also worshiped other gods. Wayne Gordon describes, “Samaritans, in essence, had taken certain Old Testament Scriptures and reinterpreted them in their own way.” Samaritans were also considered to be troublemakers at times. Thus, there was tremendous animosity between the two groups. Sirach 50:25-26 reveals this sentiment around the mid-second century BCE, as Esler relates, “Judean dislike of the Samaritans…extends so far as even to deny them a status as a group at all, since the author says he hates a nation (ethnos) which is ‘not a nation at all’, namely, ‘the stupid people living at Shechem.’”
In the eyes of the Judeans, the animosity was perhaps well warranted as the actions of some Samaritans seemed to instigate the volatile situation. Even back in the Old Testament, Samaritans were perhaps interfering with the Judeans’ beliefs because it is demonstrated in Ezra 4:4-5 that they opposed the Temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem. Moreover, at one point it is recorded that some Samaritans surreptitiously snuck into Jerusalem and placed human bones around the temple to initiate trouble. This antagonism even escalated to violence based on reports in 52 CE. Although this incident occurred after the time of Jesus, it was still significant because of its bearing on Luke. Esler explains, “Particularly revealing for the state of Judea/Samaritan revelations, and…for Luke’s understanding of them, were the events of 52 CE.” Apparently, a Judean man was on his way to a celebration in Jerusalem when some Samaritans killed him as he passed through one of their villages (Gema). This resulted in an onslaught of Judeans attacking and massacring some Samaritan villages. Suffice to say, the hostility between Judeans and Samaritans began in the Old Testament and extended even after the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
With this background in mind, it is important to examine how Jesus handled the Samaritans who were a notoriously despised out-group of his time. Esler describes one scenario and how Jesus responded, In ch. 9 of [Luke’s] Gospel (vv. 51-56), not long before Jesus will tell the story of the compassionate Samaritan, he recounts a remarkable incident directly on point. Having resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him who went into a Samaritan village to make preparations. But the villagers would not receive him, because he was going to Jerusalem…Given the aversion Judeans and Samaritans had for one another and the enthusiasm of his disciples for their role, nothing could be less surprising than their response to this rejection: ‘James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ And nothing could be more surprising than Jesus’ brief and forceful reaction: ‘He turned and rebuked them.’ Here we have a revealing indication of his impatience with extreme forms of group differentiation.
In fact, Jesus proclaims in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Therefore, Jesus sent his disciples to bear testimony to the Samaritans despite it all.
Later, in Luke chapter 10, a man asks Jesus what he has to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him he must love his neighbor. On the surface, the man seems to genuinely want to discern whether he is fulfilling this requirement. Thus, he asks Jesus who he should consider to be his neighbor. Esler explains the man’s true intentions, “The lawyer now asks a second question, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (10:29)…That the lawyer asks it wishing to justify himself (dikaiosai heauton) may also possibly suggest that he will be able to show that he has properly treated anyone that Jesus does nominate as ‘neighbour’ (Bailey 1980: 39). Although Fitzmyer correctly notes that the implication in the lawyer’s questions is, ‘Where does one draw the line?’…The legal issue posed is ‘who are we Judeans obligated to treat as neighbours and whom not?’ It is a boundary question of an exclusionary type…Whom does God require us to love as ourselves and whom not? Or, more specifically, what is the outer limit of the people we must treat as neighbours? A common answer at this period was that ‘neighbour’ meant fellow Israelite…As Fichtner notes, ‘There can be no doubt that the terms used here, including re’ah, denote fellow-members of the covenant or the community who share in the election of the covenant’ (1968: 314-15)…Within the context of social identity theory, the lawyer’s question raises a key indicator for determining who is a member of the ingroup, and thus deserving to be treated with the warmth and regard owed to ingroup members, and who is a member of the outgroup, and thus susceptible of the stereotypical and negative attitudes and behavior appropriate in relation to such a person.”
In response to the man, Jesus told a parable known as the Good Samaritan. In the parable, a man is traveling a treacherous road when he is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Several important details are often overlooked. First, Jesus described the man as “a certain man” without giving any identifiable details. Second, the man was naked, which means his attire could not disclose whether he was Judean or non-Judean. Even being able to distinguish whether the man was circumcised would not help, because Egyptians and Samaritans were circumcised. Third, he was unconscious, which means his language and accent could not disclose his “ethnic-linguistic identity.” An Israelite priest passed by the man, and did not help him, which suggests that he had discerned that the man was not considered a neighbor in view of Mosaic law, or because he feared defilement if the man were deceased. Subsequently, a Levite man also ignored the man on the road. Finally, Jesus says in Luke 10:33, “But a Samaritan traveling on the road came upon him and when he saw him he was moved with compassion.” Esler explains the power of this revelation when he reveals, “That a representative of one of the hated outgroups is brought along that road challenges the whole structure of group differentiation which the law functioned to maintain. Jesus has jerked the issue from the meaning of particular Israelite laws to one concerning far more fundamental notions of group differentiation and social identity.”
While the priest and the Levite had only considered their obligation to the Mosaic law, the Samaritan had only considered that there was a human being in need, and he had compassion on him regardless of whichever group the man belonged. Esler concludes, “‘Neighbour’ understood in this sense is someone who ignores group boundaries – of the sort erected by the law of Moses – to assist anyone who has need. Jesus thus calls for a movement from a group-oriented ethic to a universal one – and at the level of principle.” Thus, love of neighbor clearly supersedes in-groups and out-groups.
Lastly, Jesus demonstrated reaching out to outsiders in John 4 when he initiated direct contact by speaking to a Samaritan woman at a well. By spending time with this woman, listening, and sharing with her, many in her town came to believe in Jesus. John 4:39-41 describes, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.” Michael Kuhn gives a clear explanation about the power of intentionally spending time with outsiders: “Linger by the well. Jesus did. He had time to listen to an immoral Samaritan woman. He even incited the dialogue and progressively moved this woman toward a fuller understanding of himself. We live in a world of walls…Walls dividing Christians from Muslims…There are linguistic barriers, political barriers, cultural barriers, educational barriers, race and gender barriers. One lesson that screams at us from Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is that he felt it important to overcome the barriers separating him from that woman. In order to overcome the barriers, Jesus lingered for a while. He actually had a conversation [with her]… He just lingered. More and more of us will be encountering Muslims in the coming months and years. They are flocking to the West in search of education and employment. Many of them will be intimidated by their new surroundings and quite fearful that their Islamic faith will put them in jeopardy…perhaps you are anticipating that I am encouraging you to have these conversations with Muslims so you can share your faith. May I surprise you by saying that’s not my intention; rather, I think it imperative that Muslims experience genuine concern and care from a Christ follower. The facts of Christ’s death and resurrection are easy enough to rehearse. What is indeed rare in our day is an extended hand, a caring smile, someone who is willing to go the extra mile to help someone in need. When Muslims see these things, barriers are broken down and life is transformed. A true conversation can take place that will no doubt reference our faith, but not only that. Linger by the well.”
Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, because this idea of associating with people in out-groups, known as the contact hypothesis, has been studied and shown to be beneficial in reducing prejudice. Over fifty years of studies have indicated that intergroup interactions help ameliorate prejudice. More frequent experience and contact with members of an out-group leads to a friendlier attitude toward that group and a more positive assessment. The Pew Research Center conducted a study that demonstrated this. Based on the aforementioned thermometer assessment, the study concluded, “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group…Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.” During the participant observation portion of this study, this became apparent as well. People who expressed that they had close Muslim friends, or had been to countries with a predominantly Muslim population and worked with Muslims, intentionally sought me out in the crowd. It became clear that people who had experience interacting with Muslims were more comfortable with me and were not afraid to initiate contact.
At some point, preferably after showing sincere love for Muslims and building a friendship, it is important for believers to share the Gospel with Muslims. Colossians 4:5 advises, “Be wise in how you treat outsiders, and make the most of every opportunity.” Jesus attracted people who were outsiders. Georges Houssney described that the love of Jesus was “irresistible,” and “people gravitated to him.” That same love should be in Christians and should be attracting outsiders to them. During the participant observation portion of this study, I received an unfriendly reception at the first church. But, upon entering the auditorium, one volunteer showed her kindness, which resulted in me being naturally drawn to that woman and she desired to stay near her. In the same vein, friendship is crucial as one former Muslim, Nabeel Qureshi, emphasizes. He revealed one of the barriers for him in accepting Christ when he described, “Since no Christian cared about me, I did not care about their message.” But, the Gospel message partnered with love and friendship makes for a powerful witness. One missionary described a moving conversation he had with a Muslim man when he shared, “I’ll never forget explaining the Gospel to a man in Afghanistan who heard it for the first time. When he understood it, he said, ‘Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?’ That’s what over a billion Muslims can say. ‘Why hasn’t anyone told us before?’”
Finally, it has been demonstrated that fear, lack of accurate information, and religiosity can be hindrances for reaching out to Muslims. But, seeing the examples of Jesus and reading the Scriptural mandates removes all excuses. Scripture does not include any exception clauses excusing Christians from reaching out to Muslims, regardless of whether they view them as a neighbor or as an enemy.
In conclusion, it has been established that the majority of Muslim immigration has been fairly recent, so there is still a learning curve among both Americans and Christians as they figure out how to navigate society with Muslims. Despite the general consensus, Muslims in America are actually integrating into American society rather well, and they live fairly normal lives akin to those of other Americans. Most Muslims are open to friendships with non-Muslims, and many even desire to learn from others of different faiths. Unfortunately, many Christians and the general population have been negatively impacted by various factors that feed a negative stereotype of Muslims. Regardless of the perception, Christians have Biblical mandates to fulfill such as loving their Muslim neighbors and sharing the Gospel. Three primary reasons seem to exist for why Christians are not engaging Muslims and that is fear, lack of education, and an in-group versus out-group mentality. These obstacles can be remedied by keeping a Jesus-centered mindset in life, by taking time to learn more about Muslims and Islam from fair and accurate sources, and by following Jesus’ example of how he treated outsiders and interacted with them.
In addition to all of this, there is even further reason for Christians to love their Muslim neighbors in America, which could potentially have a direct impact on the one area that strikes at their hearts the most. The general population fears Muslims because they fear attacks, extremism, and Muslims not assimilating. But, when “out-groups” feel rejected and ostracized, this actually encourages them to pull away from society. Azadeh Ghaffari studied the harsh effects of discrimination on Muslim immigrants in the US and concluded, “When faced with discrimination, individuals have shown to ‘identify stronger with groups that have clear boundaries, internal homogeneity, social interaction, and common fate’ such as Muslim groups.” When Muslims feel discriminated against it might cause them to turn to Islamic circles where they feel accepted instead of rejected and judged. Thus, this creates a cycle because Christians fear that Muslims are isolating, yet prejudice might be what instigates Muslims’ to withdraw. As a result, the prejudice actually pushes them deeper into Islam as a coping mechanism. Therefore, Christians and the general population who are prejudiced again Muslims actually facilitate what they fear.
Furthermore, Mohamed Nimer reveals another aspect of this vicious cycle: “A circular cause-and-effect relationship exists between Islamaphobia and anti-Americanism. Consider the following sequence of events, starting arbitrarily with 9/11: the strike by Al-Qaeda left thousands of people dead and injured and triggered the most noticeable anti-Muslim violence in US history and the most vocal wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the West. The attack is then used to justify the invasion of two Muslim-majority countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or injured. This then unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks against vulnerable targets of US allies around the world. These attacks have been followed by increased US pressures on Muslims in the United States and abroad, including human rights abuses and the use of torture in the name of national security. Revelations about such practices at Abu-Ghraib and other US holding facilities in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay…have inflamed anti-American sentiments. So the pattern is clear: terrorist attacks against Americans are followed by anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy. This in turn reinforces anti-American sentiment and provokes a new round of terrorist attacks. For those who promote reconciliation, it is pointless to ask which of the two phenomena began first. What is more important is to recognize the symmetrical relationship between the two, namely, as Islamophobia increases, anti-Americanism is strengthened, and vice versa.”
Thus, this should matter to Christians beyond just a spiritual scope, and also for practical reasons. By not treating Muslims well, loving them, or embracing them, Christians actually exacerbate the situation and end up helping contribute to what they fear. Muslims around the world believe that Muslims in America are not treated well or welcomed. Around 50% of Muslims surveyed in countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) feel that Muslims in the West are not treated equally. A Gallup survey stated, “The notion that Muslims in these countries are treated unfairly supports the idea that Muslims in general believe that unfair treatment of Muslims – a component of Islamophobia – does exist in Western societies.” The survey later added, “This is another example of Muslims globally seeing the West as mistreating Muslims in their countries. This belief adds to the perception of Muslims being excluded from social, political, and civic life in Western societies.” This idea only intensifies the anti-American sentiment around the world. Therefore, Christians are actually adding fuel to the fire. In addition, well over 50% of Muslims in MENA perceived Westerners, including people in the U.S., to be “selfish, violent, greedy, immoral, arrogant and fanatical.”
In this regard, Christians could actually be impacting the entire Muslim world by how they treat Muslims in the US. Many Muslims residing in the US have family members still living overseas. If Muslims in the US are welcomed, embraced, and treated well by Christians in America, they will probably share this information with their families overseas about how they are being treated. If they have been well received by Christians, this could significantly improve globally the perception many Muslims have of Americans and Christians. In fact, several scholars attest, “Muslim attitudes toward the Church have often been changed for the better when Muslims have seen Christians living out the humility and love commanded in verses such as Eph. 4:2, ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love,’ and Eph. 5:2a, ‘Live a life of love.’” Christians have the power to change this perception one Muslim at a time, and the implications could have a far-reaching global impact.
Finally, it is important to remember the past in an effort to illuminate the future. Since the very first Muslim immigrants came to the US, the relationship between American Christians and Muslims seems to have been strained. Edward Curtis paints the perception of how a Muslim slave viewed his Christian owner: “Abd al-Rahman was familiar with both Christian theology and scriptures, and according to reporter Cyrus Griffin of the Natchez Southern Galaxy, once said that the ‘New Testament [was] very good law; [but] you no follow it.’ He criticized the lack of piety that he observed: ‘You no pray often enough.’ He claimed that Christians used their religion to justify their greed and cruel use of slaves: ‘You greedy after money. You good man, you join the religion? See, you want more land, more niggers; you make nigger work hard, make more cotton. Where you find that in your law?’
Even from the beginning, Muslims perceived a disparity between the actions and attitudes of Christians and what they believed the Bible actually proclaimed. Compare the words of the aforementioned Muslim slave to those of a Muslim curious about Christianity in the 21st Century. He wrote a preacher and asked, “Do you think I would find loving and open-minded friends in the church? Would it be fair to say some people would put their guards up and won’t want anything to do with someone who belongs to some different Asian Indian race? Someone who has a different color of skin and speaks with an accent?”
In one of the surveys for this study, a man answered all of the questions negatively about Muslims, and then described that he was uninterested in learning more about them from church. His comment at the end was, “Pray for God to put love in [Muslims’] hearts for all mankind.” Perhaps Christians are the ones who need the change of heart and for God to put love in their hearts for all mankind, which includes Muslims. It is easy to shift the responsibility to someone else, but Christians need to take responsibility for their own hearts. Kidd wisely surmises, “American Christians’…views of Islam generally tell us more about American Christians than any Muslims in particular.” In the end, perhaps Christians should focus less on how they perceive Muslims, and instead should be more concerned with how Muslims perceive them.
Citations have been removed for readability. Leigh Carmichael’s paper “American Christians’ Perception of Muslims and its Implications for Ministry” can be read in its entirety in the research section.