Christians & Muslims: Interview — Justice and Peace

For all the Western media talks about the “Arab street,” most of us can scarcely imagine what that world is really like. Fuller Seminary professor J. Dudley Woodberry knows. Since 1957, he has studied, taught, and ministered in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and he has visited 35 other predominately Muslim countries. We asked him to describe how Muslims view history, society, and the West.

This issue looks at turning points in Christian-Muslim relations from a Christian perspective. How might a Muslim history read differently? Would Muslims focus on the same events?

Their history would be similar in many ways, although obviously what might be an “up” for us might be a “down” for them. It would depend on the type of Muslim, because that which creates hostility would be a “down” for many Muslims as well as for Christians. Both groups are looking for good relations without giving up their evangelistic mandates.

There would, however, be significant differences. For example, last summer I was asked by a Muslim theological faculty in Turkey to gather a group of Christian scholars for a dialogue on topics including the Crusades. Most of us don’t feel at all responsible for the Crusades. We’re very individualistic in the West, and we just weren’t around back then. But we apologized twice for what the Crusades did not only to Islam, but also to the region that is now Turkey. And we practically got a standing ovation for that. Quite obviously, with their sense of group responsibility and trauma, that’s a much a bigger issue for them than for us.

Then there’s the colonial period, which most Westerners would not think of as a Christian invasion. With our sense of the separation of church and state, we see colonialism as political. But for many Muslims, colonization represented a crusading spirit that also manifested itself as support for Zionism and Israel. Such feelings have been obvious in the statements of Osama bin Laden and even of some Palestinians recently.

Does Islam always link what we would consider the religious and the political?

The overwhelming majority of Muslims see Islam as a total way of life. Of course, many Muslims today, because of a pluralistic world or because in some regions they are a minority, know they’re going to have to emphasize the religious aspects and not be bound by some of the seventh-century political ideas of Islam.

But in general, Muslims view the separation Americans make between church and state as an unhealthy one. They would even point to the breakdown in morality that we have here as evidence of what happens when you take religion out of the other arenas of life.

What, then, would Muslims see as the ideal political and religious system?

Well, you have more than one point of view. The Islamist or fundamentalist view is that all of the answers are in the Qur'an and in the practice of Muhammad and the early Muslim community. If we just return to that, we’ll be all right.

Conservatives would join with the fundamentalists in looking backward. By conservatives I mean those who focus on the adaptations of the first 300 years of Islam. In that time the four major schools of Sunni law and Shi'ite law were established, Shari'ah law was developed, and the major schools of theology were in place. Conservatives would say the adaptations were enough, and if we just return to those, everything will be all right.

Others realize that fundamentalists and conservatives oversimplify things. These Muslims still idealize Muhammad and the era of Islamic dominance and culture during the Abbasid Period [750–1258], but they understand that we've got to live in the modern world. They attempt to retain and emphasize the values of that early period, as they remember it or have reconstructed it, within modern legal systems and pluralistic nations.

One of the values of early Islam was aggressive expansionism. What do non-fundamentalist Muslims make of that?

What you see in the early expansion, particularly of the first hundred years, was the extension of Islamic military and political power. There was not much forced conversion at that time.

The goal was to establish an ambiance that favored conversion, and conversion indeed followed during the next couple of hundred years, from North Africa to the Indus River. Although there were jihads in Africa and elsewhere, Islam was largely carried by the trader or the Sufi, or mystic, missionary.

Now, if Larry Poston is right in his book Islamic Da'Wah in the West, Muslims reversed this strategy in Europe and North America, seeking to evangelize first. Then, with enough converts, an ambiance would be created that would make it possible for Islam to have more political control. Many Muslims, though, realize that this is not at all likely to work in the West, so they are not trying to follow through with it.

What is being preached in mosques today, in North America and elsewhere?

Unfortunately there is a lot of anti-Western, and in some cases anti-Christian, preaching going on. Islam has been radicalized because of the sense of injustice in American policy on a number of issues, most crucially Palestine. But even in the Iraqi situation, where we focused on the weapons of mass destruction, what the Arabs and Muslims see on al-Jazeera television are the children who have died in the last 10 years from inadequate medicine and food.

With that sense of injustice, we’re getting a lot of preaching, particularly in Muslim majority countries, against the West and against Christianity, as it is associated with the West. In this country, we’re getting a much broader spectrum, because we have some Muslim leaders who are working very hard for reconciliation and understanding.

The more there’s the sense of injustice, the more the preaching in the mosques of the Muslim world takes on a militant flavor. We often forget that militancy is directly related to a sense of trauma in the Muslim community.

As long as there’s a sense of being threatened by the West, or by secularization, or by injustice, there’s going to be militancy. We trace this through history quite easily. Conversely, the more that there’s a sense of justice, the less there’s going to be militancy.

So there have been times when the Muslim world perceived the West as being just?

Oh yes, very much so. Right up until the creation of Israel, the United States had a good reputation in the Middle East. That wasn’t true for other Western countries, though.

In the Husain-McMahon correspondence at the beginning of World War I, the Arabs were told that if they sided with the Allies against their Turkish masters, who had sided with Germany, they would get independence. One year later, Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Middle East between the British, the French, and the Russians (the Russians got cut out of it, so it ended up being just the British and French).

And then you have the Balfour Declaration, which says the British government would look with favor upon the creation of the national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, as long as this did not in any way interfere with the rights of the local inhabitants.

Both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration violated the earlier agreement with the Arabs. From then on Muslims began to express anti-British sentiment, and anti-French, as the French took control of what’s now Syria and Lebanon.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson did not have colonial aspirations, and America chose not to participate in the League of Nations’ post-war division of conquered lands. Christian schools and hospitals throughout the Middle East, northern India (now Pakistan), and Iran also prompted positive attitudes toward the United States.

Then, at the end of World War II, Harry Truman violated Franklin Roosevelt’s promise to Abdul Aziz, the king of Saudi Arabia, not to do anything on Palestine without consulting the Arabs. The United States gave major support, in the United Nations and elsewhere, for Israel. That’s when Americans became the bad guys in the Arab view.

Ever since, Muslims have had a bittersweet attitude toward the United States. They see our humanitarian activities, but Palestine is such a big issue for them that it really overrides everything else.

Do you see any hope for defusing Islamic militancy and stabilizing relations between the West and Islam?

I see a hope, and I know it will come, if it comes, from an increased sense in the Muslim world of not being in trauma, of not being treated unjustly. As Micah says, “What does the Lord require? He requires justice.”

The Islamic world will notice if we are really looking for justice as well as peace, and if we are willing to lean on the Israelis as well as the Palestinians to make changes and come to a resolution. Whatever our views of eschatology, we should not be supporting things that in any other part of the world we might consider unjust. CH

By conversation with J. Dudley Woodberry

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

J. Dudley Woodberry is a professor at Fuller Seminary.
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