by J. Dudley Woodberry
What are the implications for concerned governments, Muslim-Christian relations, and for missions? What follows are my initial and tentative answers.
My wife, Roberta, and I had just been evacuated from Peshawar, Pakistan—the birthplace of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s main conduit to the world. As we waited in Thailand with other Christian aid workers among Afghans, to see if we could return, we walked the beach. Dark storm clouds were clustering around a crescent moon (the symbol of Islam) as boats moved out for the night of fishing. The scene started my reflection on the gathering storm in Afghanistan and the Muslim World: How do terrorism and the Taliban relate to Islam? What grievances drive the terrorists and their admirers?
During a service on World Communion Sunday, a day after we arrived in the United States, we learned that bombs were falling on Afghanistan. As the round loaf of bread was broken, symbolizing Christ’s broken body, I also thought of our broken world. As the cup was poured, commemorating his shed blood, I also thought of the blood being shed right then in Afghanistan, a land that had been our home. Each bomb landed in or near a place where we had been. Some craters were in the actual dirt where we had walked.
When we turned on our car radio, we heard a recording of Bin Laden calling on all Muslims to join a Holy War against the infidel West, especially Americans. Yet Muslims had been our hosts during our years of living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and our ministry had made us guests for shorter periods in most Muslim lands. Again questions arose: What are the implications for concerned governments, Muslim-Christian relations, and for missions? What follows are my initial and tentative answers.
HOW TO TERRORISM AND THE TALIBAN RELATE TO ISLAM?
In the news we have been bombarded by generalizations about the peacefulness or militancy of Islam or by the equating of fundamentalists (Islamists) and militants. All fail to grasp the diversity within Islam and its roots. The Qur’an is comprised of recitations by Muhammad, believed to come from God, to meet the needs that arose on specific occasions. Some were peaceful; others were militant. Therefore either position can be argued for by selecting specific verses or illustrations from history.
The peaceful interpretation held by a majority of Muslims is based on verses like 2:256 ("There is no compulsion in religion") and 5:82 ("The nearest in affection to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians.’"). The dhimmi classification, which applied to Jews and Christians in particular, gave them the right to practice their faith as long as they were loyal citizens and performed their obligations. In the Middle Ages Muslim governments were commonly more tolerant of Jews and Christians than Christian governments were of Jews and Muslims.
The militants, however, base their position on qur’anic verses like 2:216 ("Fighting is prescribed for you…"); 2:190-192 ("Fight in the cause of God those who fight you and slay them…for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter….Fight them until there is no more persecution and oppression and there prevails justice and faith in God"); 9:5 ("Fight and slay the infidels") and 49:15 ("The true believers are those who…strive with…their lives for the cause of God"). Militants like Bin Laden use the words I have highlighted in their rationale: Fighting and slaying is prescribed by God. Americans cause oppression, injustice, are infidels (although the Qur’an is referring to polytheists); so Muslims must strive with their lives for the cause of God.
According to the canonical traditions, Muhammad taught that a martyr would have his sins forgiven, be shown his abode in Paradise, avoid purgatory, and receive the crown of honor. The "suicide bombers" thus see themselves as performing a sacred obligation for God and his community and acquiring honor and an eternal reward. Furthermore, their experiences have led them to believe that they do not have diplomatic or military power to overcome God’s enemies by any other means.
Another question that arises is how the rigid faith and practice of the Taliban fits into Islam. The Taliban have their historic roots in Hanbalism, the most fundamentalist of the four schools of the Sunni branch of Islam. By "fundamentalists" I mean that they turn for guidance to the fundamentals of their faith-the Qur’an and practice (Sunna) of Muhammad and the earliest Muslims-and reject later adaptations. They hold that their understanding of the society of the earliest Muslims is the model for society even today, and it applies to all areas of life. Since there are plenty of peaceful and militant examples in Islam, these fundamentalists can be peaceful or militant. The Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia is a modern example of this Islamism-which was militant when the families of Ibn Saud and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab were conquering most of Arabia and destroying popular saint veneration from the 18th century to the 20th century. Today, however, its expression in the Saudi government is largely peaceful.
From these same roots have grown the current Islamist groups starting with the Muslim Brethren in the Arab World, some of whose leaders I met with secretly in the 1960s when they were outlawed, and I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the theology of their founder. They were pious and idealistic, but their goal was so important to them that they would commit terrorism if other means were blocked. One member greatly influenced Bin Laden in his student days in Saudi Arabia while others taught in the schools and mosques of southwestern Arabia which produced a number of the plane hijackers on September 11.
The Taliban are another such group. These movements normally arise from the interaction of a feeling of trauma, local conditions and a millennial ideology. The trauma and local conditions included the fighting between the seven major mujahideen groups (with their rival ethnicities and leaders), after they had driven the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The original Taliban (literally, "students") included many orphans who had lost their fathers in the previous 15 years of fighting and were raised in the religious schools around Peshawar where they learned little beyond the Qur’an and the ideology that all would be well if they got rid of external enemies and initiated a social system based on that of the early Muslim community. After initial success against mujahideen militias, they were seen as a source of law and order-hence got Pakistani support and recruits from Pushtuns (also called Pakhtuns and Pathans) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But power corrupted many of them, and many Afghans came to resent their strict laws and punishments and the increasing number and influence of outsiders called "Arab Afghans" that they harbored.
WHAT GRIEVANCES DRIVE THE TERRORISTS AND THEIR ADMIRERS?
Terrorism is a response to a build-up of grievances real or imagined. Therefore, one cannot drive out terrorism without dealing with the grievances that lead to it. The most obvious of these is the Israel-Palestine conflict because of the frequent news coverage of rock-throwing Palestinian youths, and some suicide bombs, against vastly superior Israeli firepower.
The resentment has been building for years. Arab anger started with the Zionists’ encouragement of Jewish immigration into Palestine in the late 1800s under the slogan "A land without a people for a people without a land" when Palestine had been Arabized for over 12 centuries. The resentment increased after the British promised at the beginning of World War I to support Arab independence in exchange for Arab support in the war effort against their Ottoman Turkish masters. Instead they made the Psykes-Pecot agreement (to divide the Near East into European protectorates) and then the Balfour Declaration (to look with favor upon the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine that should not interfere with the rights of the local inhabitants). The anger turned against the United States, when after World War II, President Truman not only did not honor President Roosevelt’s promise to King Ibn Saud not to make any decisions concerning Palestine without consulting with the Arabs, but he and American officials twisted arms in the United Nations to offer the Jews over half of Palestine when they were still only a third of the population and owned only 12 percent of the land. In subsequent fighting the Israelis gained control of all of it and have continued, Arabs point out, to build settlements in the occupied West Bank despite UN resolutions to return the lands conquered in 1967.
I know something of Jewish desperation after the Holocaust, having worked on a rusty tramp steamer out of Haifa that had previously smuggled Jews to Palestine following World War II, but I have also seen the Palestinian refugee camps filled with people whose families had owned the land for centuries. Now they watch its occupiers on television defending it and killing other Palestinians with missiles and F-16s made in the US and purchased with $3 billion in American military aid each year. Bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar ask where are the Americans when they want justice? And Arabs and Muslims around the world agree-especially since Jerusalem is the third holiest Muslim site.
Another obvious grievance is the continued sanctions against, and occasional bombings of, Iraq ten years after the Gulf War. The reasons are obvious, but pictures and reports of civilian casualties or UN reports of the thousands of children dying from malnutrition and disease-the major victims-continue to inflame passions. For many Arabs, Saddam Hussein was another Nasser uniting the Arab World, to many Muslims another Saladin fighting the most recent Crusade, and to many Third World people another Robin Hood stealing from the corrupt rich to share with the poor. Sanctions against Syria, Libya, Iran and Sudan-plus bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan without convincing proof of its military use-have fanned the flames of hatred.
A third grievance is the stage on which all the others play-the Muslims’ sense of being humiliated and in danger. For over a millennium the Islamic empires were the superpowers, and the Sunni Islam of the majority did not develop a theology of suffering, for God seemed obviously to be on their side. Then Western colonial powers divided the Muslim World between them. Today Muslims have not only been humiliated by the Jews in Palestine, but by the Christian Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, by the atheistic or Christian Russians in Chechnya and sometimes by the Hindus in Kashmir. After the bomb blasts that killed 24 Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, Bin Laden is quoted as saying, "They have raised the nation’s head high and washed away a great part of the shame that has enveloped us."
The ascending of the West is seen, fourthly, as affecting Muslims in a number of ways. It has corroded morality with the flow of alcoholism, drugs, materialism, sexual promiscuity and arrogance through movies, television and two-way travel. Modernist Muslim states have tended to continue the adoption of Western law codes rather than what is believed to be the divinely ordained Islamic laws. Economically the world is seen as controlled by Western global economic ideas based, for example, on charging interest which is not allowed by Islam. The majority of Muslim nations are poor and under a crippling foreign debt burden; so obviously it is not seen as working for them. To sum up, Islamists are angered by the fact that they believe they have superior culture but the West, especially Americans, have the superior power.
Lastly, with their superior power Americans have espoused democracy but backed Muslim regimes that Islamists feel have tried to crush their own aspirations (e.g., Iran under the Shah). For many years Americans have built the Saudi military bases and overseen the training and equipping of both their military and national guard. A significant number of the alleged hijackers in the September 11 tragedies came from Saudi Arabia. All of us who lived there had daily reminders of the American presence with the planes flying out of the local air bases. Osama bin Laden directed his sights on Americans after the Saudi government declined his offer to use Muslim veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets for the Gulf War. Instead they brought thousands of "infidel" Americans onto the holy soil of Islam’s Prophet, and a significant number stayed after the conflict. In 1998 he protested: "For more than seven years the US has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic people."
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR CONCERNED GOVERNMENTS?
Since much of the anger that has led to terrorism has resulted from years of certain people feeling that the foreign policy of the US and others with power has been unjust, the first area that must be addressed is foreign policy. Although Americans cannot police the world, there are issues like the Palestine conflict where we can help the opposing parties work out solutions, and we must strive for a maximum of justice rather than just do what is politically expedient at home. One person’s "terrorist" is another person’s "freedom fighter" and many governments in the coalition against terrorism expect support for suppressing their own opposition groups. Therefore any action will require a delicate hand-be it in Palestine/Israel, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka or Kurdish areas of Turkey. Also the world community needs to build on the opportunities the new coalition brings for rapproachement between nations.
Next, relief and development in Afghanistan cannot stop at the end of the military action, as much of it did after the expulsion of the Soviets in 1989. Twenty-two years of fighting, three years of famine and five years of Taliban rule in Kabul and much of the country have made the situation desperate. There are millions of landmines and hundreds of men and children on the streets of Afghanistan and Peshawar minus arms or legs. Much of Kabul is in ruins. And there is little food.
Third, as Americans call for revenge we need to be aware of the limitations of military action alone. To kill a "terrorist" makes him a "martyr" that inspires new "terrorists" as the Israel-Palestine conflict has shown. Furthermore a broader action, particularly if it kills civilians, just increases the militants (as the same conflict shows). Coordinated international pressure on a country harboring terrorists until they give them up proved effective with Pan AM flight 103 and the Libyans-although less effective with Iraq.
Lastly, although the Afghans were not able to hold together a united government on their own in the early 1990s, American and other foreign powers must keep as low a profile as possible in any help they give in nation building. History has shown that the one thing that unites Afghans is the presence of a foreign power on their soil.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN RELATIONS?
1. The present crisis underlines the urgency of improving Muslim-Christian relations. The repeated assertion by President Bush and coalition members that the War on Terrorism is not a war against Islam, has often been drowned out by the call of Bin Laden and militants for all Muslims to rise up in holy war against the "Crusade on Islam" and mutual demonization has been a common result.
Yet the crisis presents a unique opportunity to work on long-overdue issues. The coalition against terrorism had drawn together some Muslim and non-Muslim nations that have recently been on opposite sides of the table. Now we can work on some of the issues that have divided us. Recent events force attention to festering wounds like Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya where religion is one of the components. It has also forced Muslims to delineate more clearly what are legitimate and illegitimate means to reach what are considered to be just goals, even as it has given many Christians their first awareness of some of the concerns Muslims have for justice.
2. Christians need to affirm strongly that we with Muslims reject many of the values and results of globalizing Western culture led by Americans-materialism, consumerism, alcoholism, drug use, sexual promiscuity, individualism and arrogance. Christians’ highest loyalty is to the one God, and we affirm family values and concern for the poor and marginalized, as do pious Muslims.
3. We need to avoid Muslims based on news sound bites or the reductionism of focusing primarily on religion as the cause of conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities. There are many perspectives in the Muslim community, and even these are changing. Conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities in places like Indonesia and Sudan have ethnic, economic, political as well as religious roots. Muslims in turn need to realize how out of date it is to charge the West with a "crusade" against Islamic nations when the West is in a post-Christendom period.
4. We need an attitude of empathy, repentance, forgiveness and willingness to be forgiven even for things for which we do not feel responsible. Muslims in the West feel threatened and need our empathy even as Christians in some Muslim lands feel threatened. Because Westerners are individualistic, we often do not understand the non-Western Muslim’s sense of group responsibility. Therefore we may not feel responsible for American actions with which we disagree nor the aggression of Christendom historically; yet Eastern Muslims tend to make the connection. In a dialogue with a Muslim theological faculty in Turkey this summer of which I was a part, there was applause when we Christians apologized for the harm caused by the Crusades.
5. We need to be involved in concrete communication and working together. One of the first things my wife did upon our return from Peshawar was to visit our Pakistani-American Muslim neighbors. Many of us Christians across the country are meeting with Muslim and civic leaders to see what we can do-one good result of the tragedies.
What Are the Implications for Missions?
1. Crises can awaken us to learn. Initially we can turn to Scripture to help us face the crises. When I was privileged to speak to the Christian aid workers after their expulsion from Afghanistan by the Taliban in September, we looked at passages God had given us in previous crises. After the incarceration of two visitors there for giving out four Gospels of Luke in 1971, we saw how God saved Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, not out of the fire but in the fire when he burned their bonds, sent a divine companion and was glorified in the nation (Daniel 3:17-30).
When the church building was torn down by the Afghan government in 1973 and the government fell the next day, we were led to Joseph’s words to his brothers: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). And we looked for the good that God was bringing in increased prayer and flexibility of ministry. We returned to that verse again in 1998 during an evacuation of Christian workers by the Taliban. This fall, with the imprisonment of expatriates and Afghans from one agency and the expulsion of expatriates with other agencies, we were led to Philippians 1:12-30, where Paul overcame the circumstances of his imprisonment through prayer and the Holy Spirit. It is when we pass through situations like those in the biblical records that God uses them to encourage and guide us.
2. We can look to Scripture to see how God in Christ reaches militant fundamentalists like the Taliban. During the previous expulsion from Afghanistan we found a parallel in Saul on his way to Damascus "breathing out threats and murder" against the Christians. The Jews, like Muslims more recently, faced their imperialists-for them the Romans. And they, like Muslims today, were being engulfed by an alien globalizing culture-for them Hellenism. The response of Pharisaism was similar to today’s Islamists, a return to the Law in their Scripture-for them the To-rah. Some became peaceful Pharisees like Nicodemus, others militant ones like Saul. It took a vision of Jesus to change him even as it has in a significant percentage of the Muslim conversions to Christ today.
3. A domino pattern. Research at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission has shown that where Islamists have imposed sharia Law and there are local friendly Christians, there is receptivity to the gospel, which in turn can lead to persecution of Christians. This domino pattern, first noted after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, then in Zia al-Haq’s Islamization in Pakistan, is also observed elsewhere. We can expect the same disillusionment and hunger for grace under Taliban rule to be fertile ground for the seed of the gospel. Research has also demonstrated that other facets of the present crisis have been the contexts elsewhere for people turning to Christ when they see Christian love demonstrated in their midst. These contexts include political or military turmoil, natural disasters like famines, migration of refugees and urbanization.
4. The need to distinguish between Christian faith and Western cutlure. Where militants warn of the "Western (or American) Crusade," is the obvious need to redouble our efforts to distinguish between Christian faith and Western culture through the contextualization of word and deed and raising up of more non-Western missionaries.
5. Establishing appropriate witness. The imprisoning of Christian aid personnel by charging them with "preaching Christianity" and the expulsion of others highlights the need to study relevant scripture passages, pray through, think through and try to reach a consensus with colleagues concerning the form of witness appropriate in the cycles of greater suppression or freedom in countries opposed to traditional missions. Attention needs to be given to long-term and short-term goals, integrity, and the leading of the Spirit in the community.
6. Helping moderate Muslims reason with extremists. The imprisoning of expatriate Christian aid workers and Afghan colleagues showed the value of being able to help moderate Muslims reason with extremists. We offered those associated with the case arguments from the earliest Muslim sources for greater religious freedom, as 30 years earlier, when people were incarcerated for passing out four Gospels of Luke, we offered a Muslim lawyer a case based on the Qur’an. In 1979 in Saudi Arabia, when the government would not let us worship in one auditorium, we provided letters which early Muslim sources ascribe to Muhammad that let the Christians in Najran in Arabia retain their churches and priests.
7. God has "given to us the ministry of reconciliation." The last 12 of the 22 years of fighting have been between Afghan factions, showing the need for this reconciliation. The results of this gospel was demonstrated recently when I was privileged to visit the worship of new believers in a country in western Africa where two ethnic groups that had been killing each other on the streets were eating and worshipping together because they were one in Christ.
8. Other implications. As mission agencies prepare for post-September 11th ministries in the Muslim world, there are a cluster of implications:
- Continuing the trend for coalitions of mission agencies.
- Increasing relief and development capabilities for the tremendous human need.
- Facilitating programs for youth (including orphans), who make up a major segment of Muslim countries.
- Retaining at least skeleton teams for quick mobility when places like Afghanistan reopen.
- With the heightened danger and anti-American feeling, providing orientation in security measures and deploying more personnel without children at home and more non-Americans.
- Developing guidelines for appropriate forms of witness, discussed in orientation and broadly agreed upon by workers.
- Repeatedly updating evacuation plans for a variety of emergencies with designated tasks, accessible cash and documents, backup of computer and paper records, and adequate communication (even satellite phones) and transportation.
As noted, my wife and I learned of the start of the Allied bombing of Afghanistan as we were participating in a communion service. A few days earlier I had been privileged to preach at and lead a communion service with aid workers who had just been expelled from Afghanistan. As we reflected on how God had cared for us in previous crises, we felt led to make a pile of stones as God’s people did when they crossed the Jordan to commemorate God’s care (Josh. 4). Each person carried a stone to the pile that will be taken back to Afghanistan when the time of destruction is over and the time to build returns.
I described how Roberta and I subsequently walked the beach in Thailand and began reflecting on the questions above as we saw storm clouds gathering around the crescent moon. By the time we returned, darkness had settled in. But lights now appeared on each fishing boat to lighten the places where they worked until the dawn came-and we knew a little better what we needed to do.
J. Dudley Woodberry is a professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has served as a missionary in Palestine, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and has acted as a consultant on the Muslim World to many US government agencies. His areas of expertise include Islam and Christian Missions, Muslim Faith and Life, Muslim Evangelism, Folk Islam and current trends in Islam.
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