by Marv Newell
I have just returned from visiting two countries in Southeast Asia where I repeatedly heard Western Christian workers use the code word cousins in reference to Muslims. “Let’s remember to pray for our cousins,” “We now have a new outreach to cousins in the north,” and “We need new workers to cousins in the capital city,” were some of the contexts in which the word was used. The use of the word cousin in reference to Muslims seems to be a Western contrivance that started slow, but has now gained full acceptance. When I asked some “M”s (another Western code word) where they got the word cousin from to refer to Muslims, they admitted they did not know. It has just become common jargon of those working among Muslims when speaking to each other about their ministry.
I must admit that I have not been reading too deeply lately in the area of Muslim ministry to be able to trace the origin and subsequent common use of cousin in reference to Muslims. Maybe someone reading this blog could point me to the originator and champion of the term. But, I have some real theological concerns about Christians, especially Christian message bearers, claiming a familial relationship with Muslims – some kind of link that puts Muslims in the family of God like us.
Webster defines cousin as, “a child of one’s uncle or aunt,” “a relative descended from one’s grandparent or more remote ancestor by two or more steps and in a different line,” “kinsman, relative, a distant cousin.” The word can be extended to, “one associated with or related to another, a counterpart.”
I scratch my head and wonder, how do Muslims, who deny the deity and saving work of Christ (which the Apostle John calls “anti-Christ” 1 John 4:1-3) somehow have a relationship with Christ-followers? Can they really be considered our cousins by any stretch of the definitions above?
“Well,” you may say, “it goes back to Abraham fathering two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. They were obviously related so, by extension, are Christians and Muslims.” But that argument is deeply flawed. It can be rightly asserted that the descendants of those two brothers are related, but that only pertains to Arabs and Jews. One would be hard pressed to stretch (spiritualize?) that and say, German Christians and Malaysian Muslims are related. “But,” another might assert, “it goes back to the three sons of Noah that survived the flood. We are all cousins, if we trace our lineage back to Noah.” Well, by that rationale, then everybody is our cousin – Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, Atheists, etc. In other words, if everyone is our cousin, because we are related through Noah, the concept of what is familial gets so diluted that no one is our cousin.
As a thinly-guised contextualization, if we Westerns want to insist on referring to Muslims among whom we work as cousins, that is one thing. But to then expect that national believers in certain countries do the same, that becomes a form of contextual imperialism. There is no way that we should expect the Papuan Christian who has lost his home, land, and livelihood to government-sponsored migrated Muslims to refer to their new neighbors as cousins! They would be appalled at the thought! They have enough difficulty accepting those newcomers as fellow Indonesians, let alone cousins! That tension is true in many other Christian communities around the world that butt up against Islam.
Let’s exercise a bit of caution. I suggest that, if some message-bearers are adverse to using the term Muslim (which, by the way, they themselves prefer to use of themselves!) in reference to the people of their focus ministry, then let’s find another term that is not theologically disturbing. How about “neighbors,” or “friends” or “nationals” (archaic term) or “pals.” Certainly any of those terms of association are theologically and missiologically better than placing Muslims in a familial relationship with us.
So, who is my cousin? Certainly not my unbelieving Muslim neighbor.