My first visual exposure to Islam occurred at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The stunning beauty and color was expressed in artistry from both public and domestic spaces. The art embodied a theology in which all dimensions of life were held and pervaded by the power and authority of Allah. Taken together, it portrayed a vision that was philosophical and practical, comprehensive and coherent, beautiful and inspirational.
As a relatively new Christian at that time, I knew I lived in a different theological frame, but one that was no less comprehensive or coherent, no less committed to beauty or function. Yet, what struck me most was the profound integration and presence of faith in all the physical structures and practical implements of life. This felt both engulfing and moving.
A few years later, I found myself driving through the countryside of Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country, when our car was halted at a police checkpoint. We were held for a few minutes, before being allowed to drive on under police escort. As we came around a bend in the road, we were suddenly in awe to find ourselves literally driving through a vast white sea of Muslims at prayer—a kneeling crowd extending as far as we could see on both sides of the road. Newspapers said one million people were gathered that day on the plain near Dhaka. Whatever else this unforgettable image contained, it was a scene of peaceable, communal devotion that humbled my Christian practice.
So much has gripped the world related to Islam since those days: the 9/11 attacks and the hysteria and fear that followed, the subsequent years of protracted wars, the Syrian civil war and the massive immigrant crisis, the attacks in France and elsewhere and the torture and barbarity of ISIS both in the Middle East and beyond.
Islamophobia now pulsates around the globe. Based on acts of violence, including public beheadings, declarations of hatred and attacks against Christians and Western states, conflicting representations of Islam and of Islam’s attitudes towards non- Muslims—the fires of Islamophobia burn-on daily. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Muslim scholars have critiqued and rejected the rhetoric of militant Islam, underscoring their commitment to Islam as the way of peace in the name of and for the glory of Allah. But these declarations receive little attention in the Western press, garner little increased trust, and do not seem to affect common opinion, political rhetoric, or popular Western biases. The check on Islamaphobia seems weak when measured by the fires of Western media.
As a theological insider to the Christian tradition, I know what it is like to have proponents of the same faith I trust say and do things that make the Christian faith appear to be hateful and grotesque. When fellow Christians spout degrading vitriol towards other Christians, or Muslims, or others, I am grieved and horrified. When their words readily breed self-referential violence in the name of justified protectionism, I am disaffected and stunned. These are as offensive to my sensibility towards what it means to be Christian as the actions of some jihadists are offensive to what it means to be Muslim. These dynamics reveal the painful collisions within our religious traditions that make inter-religious engagement that much more difficult: “whose justice?”, “which rationality?”, indeed.
One of the more surprising and profound counter-currents to Islamophobia occurred for me one day in Berkeley, California at the end of a long week of campus hostilities and demonstrations around these religious and political issues. The moment was reported by the editor of the campus newspaper in the following way:
I can conclude only by ceding the floor to my friend Tinley Ireland, who gave, for my money at least, the best speech of the evening. Just as the sun set, shining right into her face, she stood up on the steps of Sproul Hall on the same consecrated spot where earlier in the day the fear-based community had shouted itself hoarse about the people “over there” who are just waiting, waiting to get us. She stood there and told us about her faith. She talked about how the hardest part of following Christ was to love not just her friend, but her enemies too…At the end she asked who in the crowd didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. Most hands went up. Mine did. She smiled, and as the light faded she simply and truly said, “I love you.” I’ve been on the receiving end of a few punches in my life, but nothing ever hit me that hard. I don’t know exactly what kind of politics or religion or philosophy that is—but whatever it is, where can I sign up? (Scott Lucas, Daily Cal, October 29, 2007)
Now there’s an approach that might make a difference.