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Dealing with Assumptions about Muslims

DavidGraftonPortrait-42014The Rev. Dr. David D. Grafton

Ever since 1979, the Middle East has intruded into American homes on a seemingly nightly basis. In his final days hosting CBS Evening News, steadfast anchorman Walter Cronkite chronicled the 444 days in which 52 Americans were held hostage in Tehran, Iran, and shocked the country as never before. Since the Iranian Revolution, the Middle East has been ubiquitous in news. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried — and failed — to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Every Congress since 1979 has voted to send block aid to Israel and a similar amount in kind to Egypt. Economically, petrol (oh sorry … gas) prices rise and fall due to the whims of OPEC oil sheikhs from the Gulf impacting the quintessential American icon of freedom — the car. Revolutions and Arab Springs have swept across North Africa, the Arabian or Persian Gulfs (take your pick), and terrorist organizations have reached American shores, prompting terrorism alerts and fear-mongering.

Having been a student of this region my whole adult life, and having served in the Middle East with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I am struck by at least three different assumptions that I frequently experience from the good folk in the pews.

1. What is good for us is good for the Middle East and what is good for the Middle East is good for us.

As important as the geographic area of the Middle East is to American economic, strategic, and religious interests, most Americans know very little about its history, cultures, and peoples. Most of us experience the Middle East exclusively as limited sound bites coming through our TVs, laptops, tablets, and mobiles in 30 second segments. Be it a nuclear Iran, an embassy attack in Libya, or a safe and secure Israel, the stories that we are fed create a myopic view of the region in which everything that happens is about us. Or, said another way, anything that doesn’t impact us, American policies abroad or national security at home, is not of value.

But what about the complicated and intriguing social systems of group identity, gender, and age; the elaborate mores of hospitality, honor, and public politeness; the atavistic role of history and tradition; the remarkable impact of art, literature, architecture, and science on culture; and the depth of philosophy, theology, and mysticism that is not just limited to arguments over imposing sharia? The research of Shibley Telhami (The World Through Arab Eyes) provides one of many sources of information that isn’t filtered by network media. Online Middle East newspapers in English are available daily and can open up our world to what others think of their countries — and us! In other words, we have opportunities to find out about the region that isn’t solipsistic.

2. All Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are extremists.

First, fewer than 19 percent of all Muslims are Arabs. The Arab Christian and Arab Jewish population around the world number over 30 million. If we take out the Christian population of Egypt, which numbers around 10 million, the largest Muslim country in the Middle East is Iran, which is not even Arab. The Muslim world spans four hemispheres and the top five largest Muslim countries are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. The American Muslim population is extremely ethnically diverse, being made up of at least 77 different nationalities. African Americans make up anywhere from 28 to 40 percent of all Muslims in the US. It is often asked, “Why do they need so many mosques in America?” Just like there are many different types of Christians in the US, there are many different Muslim. Our recent fears have been conflated into a simplistic understanding of Islam, producing anti-Muslim bigotry, and, dare we say, racism?

Second, it is important to recognize the diversity of the 1.6 billion Muslims, ethnically, spiritually, and politically. While global terrorism is certainly a threat, all Muslims do not walk around plotting to destroy America nor do they feel responsible to apologize for extremists at every turn. Still, there have been a wide variety of condemnations of terrorism by Muslims that have simply been ignored. As someone who has been the victim of Middle Eastern terrorism (the Taba Bombing of 2004 involved our family), it is clear to me that we (American Christians) still have suitable choices about how we view, respond to, and engage with Muslims.

Finally, to put terrorism into context, let us remember that while thankfully the number of terrorist related deaths in the US has plummeted since 9/11, there are on average 32,514 deaths each year related to gun violence. American society is more directly impacted by domestic violence and random gun violence than foreign terrorism.

3. The Christians of the Middle East are converts thanks to Western Protestant missionaries.

As far as I remember, Acts 2:1-11 does not mention Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Brits, or Americans being present at Pentecost. Rather, there were Arabs, Egyptians, Libyans, Iraqis, and Iranians. These churches and their traditions and interpretations of the faith have deep roots which have even thrived under various Islamic kingdoms. While Western councils have long ago decreed the Oriental Orthodox heretics, their traditions and theologies have never been stuck in antiquity. I remember listening to Coptic Bishop of Thomas of al-Qusia (Upper Egypt) preach his Palm Sunday sermon, where he reminded his parishioners that Jesus not only literally came to Egypt (Matt. 2), but that it is precisely because of Jesus’ journey to Egypt that He has come into their hearts, a very Protestant idea if there was one.

The Middle Eastern Christian legacy is important for us not only because it is good to remember that Semitic languages and cultures have unique insights into biblical stories, but because many of these Middle Eastern Christians have set up shop in our neighborhoods. Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Syrians, may well be important ecumenical partners in our neighborhoods. While our congregations might be celebrating a 150-year sesquicentennial, the transplanted Syrian congregation may be celebrating 1,500 years!

All this being said, how are American Christians to understand the current situations in the land of the Bible? As a church, we have a responsibility to see beyond political rhetoric and fear-mongering, to express the love of God for the whole world. For the sake of the Gospel in the world are we able to be moved by the stories of real people in a region where resources are scarce and dreams are plentiful: people like ‘Ali and his olive grove, Yahya and his daughters, Heba and her studies. It is Yeshua, the wandering Aramaic-speaking Middle Easterner, who met and continues to meet these people on the road, by the well, in the fields of the Middle East.

How are you leading your communities of faith in response to these American assumptions of the Middle East?

The Rev. Dr. David D. Grafton is LTSP’s Director of Graduate Studies, and Associate Professor and Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations. He can be reached at dgrafton@ltsp.edu.

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