Mark Durie writes in Eternity, ‘A truly Christian response to the multi-faceted challenge of “Muslims behaving badly” must embrace both truth and love in equal measure.’ He goes on to outline what truth and love involves. In the middle, Durie says:
Truth will also acknowledge that many Muslims vehemently reject the methods and goals of the Islamic state, and that the #NotInMyName hashtag campaign is genuine and heartfelt. But this begs the question: “What is the real Islam?”
‘What is the real Islam?’ is a tricky question because big movements, especially ‘religions’, are often diverse. Yet I think the big question here is something else: Who gets to define Islam in the first place?
Is truth only something that we Christians give to Muslims? Are we the arbiters of what is and is not ‘real Islam’? Are we so ready to question whether those opposed to Islamic State are ‘real Muslims’?
It’s a dangerous business for us Christians to be preoccupied with ‘real Islam’, not because theological questions should be downplayed, but because we risk dehumanising others. Yes, we’d all do well to acknowledge and understand the theological underpinnings of Islamic State (as well as the historical, socio-political and economic factors) but we first need to consider whether Islam is ours to define.
While perhaps there is a balance of sorts to be struck between truth-telling and love, these are not parallel activities. Love means, as Jesus puts it, ‘Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you,’ and so love allows others the space to say what is and is not true of themselves, as Roy Ciampa has already pointed out. (How we hate it when atheists tell us what our faith is!)
Love, as Durie says, ‘takes pains to understand the other; it seeks to see the world through another’s eyes and to hear words through another’s ears.’ That must involve us giving Muslims the dignity to define themselves. To love is to take others on their own terms, to ‘reject stereotyping’ just as Durie says. That must involve us laying down the prerogative to determine the nature of Islam.
Love also means resisting the temptation to talk about Islam without reference to real-life Muslim communities. There’s little use in discussing Islam as a belief system without considering how Muslims live in practice, and how their communities handle their own scriptures and traditions. We might think we’ve discovered a logic of Islamic violence, but what is it that actually shapes Muslim lives? The Muslim condemnations of Islamic State, like these two letters, are important not only because they condemn violence, but also because they give us genuine insight into the lives of Muslims around us — and Islam.
If ‘speaking the truth in love’ means anything here, it is that truth can only be spoken within existing relationship. The great challenge for us is not so much whether we’ve understood Islam as whether we know Muslims. As part of our love for our Muslim friends, let’s ask them what Islam is to them.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.