by George Jennings
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini befuddled the West once again early this year, when he offered millions to anyone who would kill Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. While diplomats, publishers, and writers fumed about the outrageous murder contract, no doubt the public’s vision of Islam — and that of many Christians as well — was further blurred.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini befuddled the West once again early this year, when he offered millions to anyone who would kill Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. While diplomats, publishers, and writers fumed about the outrageous murder contract, no doubt the public’s vision of Islam—and that of many Christians as well—was further blurred.
Those who depend on the press reports can perhaps be excused for caricaturing Middle Eastern Muslims as volatile, or even crazy terrorists. But after 40 years of research in the Middle East as an anthropologist, I fear that our Christian mission to that part of the world may also be suffering from a lack of appreciation for and understanding of Middle Eastern culture.
Too often we have failed to empathize with the Muslims’ Middle Eastern mentality. We have tried to force them into our own Western understanding of our biblical message, which seems totally contrary to their way of thinking.
Of course, our basic Christian doctrines are universal and must be taught everywhere and at all times. Muslims do need the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ just like the rest of us.
Now, let me amplify my thesis with some observations through the sieve of psychological anthropology.
First, Islam, the dominant religion in the Middle East, is thoroughly Oriental insofar as it grips the mentality of Muslims like the other great religions of Asia do. Rarely in the West do we see anything like this, which explains why we are puzzled by scenes of shouting throngs of Muslims loyal to Khomeini.
However, in one fundamental aspect the Middle Eastem religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—”differ radically from the major Oriental religions. They are theistic, while those centered in east Asia are nontheistic (except for Shinto).
The three monotheistic religions are more aggressive, less tolerant, and do some proselytizing. They regard other religions as heathen, erroneous, or inferior. "We are right. You are wrong," is the simplistic way they see it.
When you think about it, the traditional attitude of Muslims toward "infidels" smacks of the same attitude as that of the early Spanish missionaries to Latin America. Both the "infidel" in the Middle East and the "idolatrous pagan" in New Spain had to be converted to the only true faith. It was for the people’s own best interests, even if done against their will.
This intolerance, often accompanied by deep emotional feelings, lies behind the violence and suicidal commitment of the Shiites in the Iranian Islamic Republic, as well as behind the terrorism and killing in Lebanon and elsewhere in the volatile Middle East.
However, violence against foreigners has been rare in the more isolated parts of the Middle East, for example, among the Bedouins. When I studied in these villages, the rural mullahs treated me with contempt, but not violence.
I found that the faithful in Islam resent our self-assurance. They look askance at our supposed superiority, which they see even among some missionaries. They are offended by our rudeness and arrogance. They see Western Christians as too eager to teach and demonstrate their superiority.
These Western stumbling-blocks are bad enough in themselves, but what’s even worse, they also stand out sharply in comparison to the general low profile taken by Middle Eastern Christians, the "dhimmi." Incidentally, Christians are puzzled by our ignorance of their historical role in the Middle East and our lack of concern for them.
As foreigners, we not only do things that are totally unacceptable to the Islamic mentality and norms—for which there are cultural sanctions—but until more recent we could not be reproached for oar flagrant violations. Generally, Westerners expect each and all to con-to their wishes, whether in ritual, courtesy (or lack of it), or social behavior.
On the one hand, our behavior often off an emo-chain-reaction, while on the other, the local people see absolutely no benefits for them or for their countries. No wonder, then, occasionally the people get fed up. There is no release for their emotional tensions, except for the occasional demonstration, and then the authorities move in.
THE RELEVANCE TO MISSIONS
While my observations are inclusive of all Westerners generally, they do have special pertinence to Christian missions in the Middle East. As we pray and plan for to serve Christ in the Middle East, we must pay attention to the dear signals coming from the people there. There are no short-cuts. We must learn to heed the cultural signals by spending more time to gain acculturational understanding. It takes time to reflect on our Western ethos and image. Even though it is quite painful for Americans, we must move closer to how they perceive us in the Middle East.
We must go beyond acquiring some superficial knowledge of Arabic, or Farsi, or Turkish. We must studiously observe the Muslim vision in order to gain deeper understanding of the Muslim mind.
Such understanding doesn’t come from a "packaged tour," so to speak. The cause of missions is so important we cannot people for abbreviated visits. If that happens, the old axiom—a little knowledge is worse than none—comes into play. Such short-term sorties may only confirm stereotypes of the Middle East.
Part of our in-depth study of the Middle Eastern mystique will include our fellow Christians there. The Middle Eastern mentality is, in fact, shared by Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Oriental Jews. They all have strong emotional attachment to their religion, their families, their tribes, and their land If any component is threat ened, they see potential damage to their’ ethos, culture, morality, and worldview.
This helps us to understand what is happening in Lebanon, for example, amond various religious groups and subgroups. The conflict there is not simply Muslim against Christian. At any given time and place in the Middle East, one might find Christians fighting other Christians, or Muslims; or Muslims fighting other Muslims, Christians, or jews.
That’s why it’s essential for missions theorists and practitioners to dig behind the news headlines and the editorials to find out what forces are behind the Muslim’s thinking, feelings, and actions. For example, Westernized Middle Eastern Muslims in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and pre-revolutionary Iran will tell you that they are faithful Muslims in their emotions and their intellects, even though they may not observe the fast and the prayers and the rules against drinking wine and eating pork, or other ritual injunctions. But such attitudes get little respect from traditional Muslims. To the average Middle Eastern Muslim, it would be unthinkable not to express your religion in formal observances.
That’s why what we might think are "harmless" or "neutral" Western innovations in technology, or business, or education are staunchly opposed. It’s not because the Middle Easterner feels these innovations are undesirable, but because they know they will be followed by a decline in religious observance.
In my field work among either Shiite or Sunni Muslims, I found that the breakdown—even a tiny crack in their religious edificeâ€”would be too high a price to pay for material improvements. You can imagine the tremendous pressure to go modern and the psychic damage this causes.
To take just one example from my early field work in Mamazan, Iran. This village near the desert southeast of Tehran depends upon irrigation. The mirab ("governor of water") by experience could tell how much land could be tilled in a given year by looking at the snow cover on the Elburz Mountains 30 miles to the north. He would estimate how much water each villager’s plot would need. However, when the precipitation didn’t come, he and the other village leaders accepted drought as the will of Allah.
When the Near Foundation came and drilled a well and gave a diesel engine to drive the pump in Mamazan, the people had a reliable source of water for the first time in their history. No longer were they dependent on "the will of Allah." To degree, they could control a critical factor in their livelihood. They had taken the first step toward secularization. They also became more directly linked with the nation’s economy by dependence on fuel and repairs for the diesel engine and on trained mechanics, all of which came from Tehran.
Incidentally, although the ayatollah lashes out against the inroads of Western technology, he is quite a clever user of radio, television, and transistors.
Now, when it comes to missionary work among Muslims in the Middle East, we must anticipate and recognize the tensions that to some degree at least are an inevitable consequence of the gospel and its presentation. As we gain a clearer understanding of the vision of the distressed Muslim, we will be sensitive to his or her cultural and religious traditions and values. Our witness will, as a result, be less offensive.
True, there has been what I call a superficial Westernization of some Muslims in the Middle East. My studies show that a true absorption of Western cultural patterns is rather rare. When this happens, the person abandons his own traditional cultural values and becomes rootless and superficial.
Young Middle Eastern Muslims especially suffer serious personality damage. Having acquired the external trappings and mastered Western mannerisms, they feel free to throw off the traditional restraints of Middle Eastern Islam. They do not grasp the values implicit in Western Christianity. They live in moral limbo. I call them lonely Middle Easterners.
It’s not hard to understand why thoughtful Muslims are disquieted, or why some Muslims turn into radical folowers of the likes of Khomeini, Qaddafi, or the Muslim Brotherhood. My plea is for us to look quite carefully at the Muslims in our missionary vision. We must empathize with them as deeply as we can, so that in our vision we see an authentic Middle Eastern Muslim, not someone masquerading in Western apparel. It requires much more than a Western vision to go over and help Muslims in the Middle East!
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