One side declares that the true Islam was founded by a violent man who made that Islam reflect his violence such that Islam is a violent religion in its essence and true nature. Those Muslims who act violently, such as the members of ISIS, are therefore the true representatives of the true violent Islam. The other side declares that Islam is a peaceful religion and that members of ISIS when they act violently represent an aberration of the true Islam.

The strategy of both sides is to chase after an essence of Islam that is as elusive as Big Foot or the Abominable Snowman. They assume they have found the true Islam, and then use their finding to demonstrate how those who disagree with them are misguided, duped, or simply acting out their own cultural or religious prejudice.

So the two questions before us seem to be:

  1. Does ISIS represent the true violent nature of Islam?
  2. Is ISIS an aberration of the true peaceful Islam?

Actually I am being overly optimistic. Today the two sides rarely pose these two questions because to do so would assume that the issue is actually open for consideration. Those groups closed the discussion long ago and now unquestioningly declare their view as though it were fact.

I think a better approach would be to revive asking questions without assuming the answer is known, but focusing on asking helpful questions for which an answer is logically possible without simply reflecting bias, prejudice, hate, or hidden agenda. I have a question I recommend being posed to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a question that avoids the fruitless chasing after the elusive true Islam. The question is, “Is this the Islam you want?

Consider a hypothetical responder to that question. If the person answers “yes,” then that individual is either the enemy of peace loving citizens of the world, or ideologically aligned with the enemy. Decisions then have to be made about the pragmatic and legal/ethical steps we should take to address an enemy producing ideology. If the individual is a Christian, those decisions should reflect the values of Christ.

If the person answers, “no,” whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, then the subsequent question is, “Then what are you going to do about this?” What are you going to do about this given the realities of your life and without denying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to the innocent Muslim or non-Muslim?

I wish it were as easy as just posing the question and waiting for the answer. People can lie, be ambivalent, or just confused and overwhelmed by the level of tragedy in the world. Then there are those who wouldn’t like the question and would like to shift the discussion exclusively to the causes or roots of the violence among some self-identifying Muslims.

I understand why some people might want to pose the origins question. It is a hugely important question that must be asked for us to collectively develop long term solutions. It is also important because we have answered that question wrongly for years. For example, President Bush claimed that the root of the violence was poverty. Unfortunately, the data didn’t support his claim.

Eventually we need to investigate the origins of the radicalization of individuals who carry out such violence, but this needs to be done carefully and scientifically without appealing to bias, prejudice, and ad hoc answers arrived at through theologically inspired solutions that ignore any empirical data that could shed real light on the real causes. We should not ignore theology but for Christians the answer to the origins question should be both theological and scientific. Too often those who dogmatically declare the origins tend to use bad logic, incomplete data, and virtually no empirical studies before declaring the purported origin.

Again, the roots of the violence perpetrated by self-identifying Muslims is vital and needs to be considered, but it will be overshadowed and negated in practice if we continue to ask the two polarized questions grounded in searching for the elusive true Islam.

The fact is that there are Muslims, such as those who join ISIS and those who are ISIS sympathizers who justify the violence by appealing to their vision of Islam. They can believe what they want, but when those beliefs are followed by violent behaviors, they must be addressed to the full extent of international law as peaceful people try protect themselves and their loved ones.

It is also a fact that there are Muslims who despise ISIS and denounce it to varying degrees because those Muslims have a different vision of Islam and are tired of being the victims of violence. Their vision is peace-loving and it is unhelpful to tell them that their vision is wrong, or that they are fooling themselves about the true Islam. We should embrace them as fellow believers in peace and in the international common good for all. They, like us, are horrified by the carnage in Paris and the growing list of other places that have witnessed the brutal murders of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims.

How many years have we been asking what the true Islam is? What has that gotten us? How many peace-loving Muslims have been condemned and discriminated against while the two groups continue with their fruitless questions and even more fruitless solutions? How many Muslims and non-Muslims suffer PTSD and the ravages of violence perpetrated by Muslims with a violent vision? How many of those same Muslims who want to escape that violence are being denied adequate human care by those of us who are Christians because those who think that Islam is violent by nature do not want any Muslims in their community?

I wonder what Jesus feels when He sees the violence, hears the fruitless questions we pose, listens to our discussions about Muslim immigrants, and the appeals to nationalism and fear over love in our decisions about what to do with suffering Muslims? I wonder what question Jesus is posing to us right now. Are we driven more by fear, anger, and revenge than by what Jesus would want us to do and to be? If so, how do we get back to Jesus?

Maybe that last question is the one that has gotten lost among Christians. If we don’t ask it, the world will lose.