by Ralph W. Stice
Ever since the start of my current term in 1999, I have seen a progressive hardening of the Muslim front in my city, and world events have conspired to block my efforts to integrate into the Muslim world around me.
The words were familiar but they didn’t distress me any less: "I’ve never liked Americans." Spoken by a North African acquaintance with whom I had hoped to build a friendship, this common sentiment concerning my field of service has become too familiar. As the world continues to draw lines of separation more clearly than ever before, it’s time to ask if American missionaries will be God’s channel to impact the Muslim world.
I have been given the task of evangelizing North Africans in the Paris area. They are a difficult group to enter, having withdrawn into their own community in response to French prejudice and supposed persecution. The result is that Muslims have little or no interest in making new friends with Caucasians, especially Americans.
I would never use the adjective "friendly" for my target group, despite their culture of hospitality and occasional warmth. Part of that is due to the unique milieu in which they live, but I’m beginning to realize my Americanness has often closed doors, too.
After September 11th of last year, and even more so as the Middlle East conflict rages out of control, Muslims are reconfiguring the world’s barriers and battle lines, with ample help from American political leaders. Every time President Bush backs Israel’s government and policies and speaks of an "axis of evil," it becomes more difficult to dialogue with my Muslim neighbors.
Muslims certainly perceive that the US is singling them out for attack, as the countries listed for possible invasion in search of Al-Qaeda operatives all fall in the Islamic world. European sentiment drifts toward anti-Islamic positions, too, as far-right politicians astound the electorate with huge voting shares and unpredicted power. To a people already inclined to a victim’s mentality, every real and perceived anti-Islamic statement places another brick in the wall between Westerner and Muslim.
Ever since the start of my current term in 1999, I have seen a progressive hardening of the Muslim front in my city, and world events have conspired to block my efforts to integrate into the Muslim world around me, I have repeatedly heard from Muslims that they have never liked Americans. They go on to say that knowing me and other kind Americans has changed their view somewhat, but the rejection of American policy and culture adds another huge hurdle to the already difficult process of witnessing to Muslim people.
On the evening of September 11, two of my son’s North African friends high-fived each other, rejoicing over that day’s events as the three of them talked in our apartment building courtyard. One told my son that he cried, "Yea!" when the second plane hit one of the Twin Towers. This friend had in previous months made observations like, "Americans like war, don’t they? They are violent, dropping bombs on everyone."
These sorts of comments hurt at face value and confuse my eleven-year-old. What injured our family even more was the knowledge that this boy was simply repeating his father’s viewpoint. What really pained us was the realization that someone we had made a huge effort to love and befriend had, in the end, resorted to his initial opinion of America and Americans-overwhelmingly negative.
Yes, this does give us a chance to learn the verse "Love thy enemies" more intimately, but in terms of missions strategy, the Christian church might need to re-evaluate the critical channel for Muslim evangelization. I’m not about to abandon my post. I just want prayer supporters to know that while they pray for new openings among Islamic people, they should not be disheartened to hear that Muslims are circling the wagons. As the Muslim world teeters between radicalism and moderation, sending churches need to know that every time an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian peasant, our job becomes more difficult.
The label of "American" is far more injurious than "Christian." Muslims often reject me first for being American, not a follower of Christ. As an American, I supposedly back every statement made by my president and am forever wed to the current Israeli prime minister’s defense policy. Many times, that’s too much for even a friendly guy like me to overcome.
As our globe seems to divide into two distinct camps of Muslim and infidel, being a citizen of "The Great Satan" impedes Christian witness more than ever. It’s true that showing a kinder, gentler side of Americans can glorify Christ, but if we’re not allowed into the circle because of our nationality, it is difficult to pull that off.
Even in a time that boasts of a worldwide Web and globalization, the distance between this American and his Muslim contacts sometimes seems greater than ever. As the Arab world’s boycott of American goods gains steam, let’s hope that the gospel will not be placed on the blacklist simply because its primary carriers come from the United States.
Ralph Stice is in his second term of church planting among Muslim peoples with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, currently serving in Paris.
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