Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Islam knows no clergy (excepting today’s Iran) and certainly no centralized authority that determines either orthodoxy (right doctrine) or orthopraxy (right conduct). Yet all Muslims agree on five pillars (“2 confessions” and 4 rituals) and on the centrality of law – how on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunna Islamic jurisprudence in its various schools evolved over the centuries to guide Muslims along the path that leads to God’s blessing in this life and the next (the Shari’a).

That said, if you want to understand contemporary Islam, you must know something about the disproportionate influence the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has played in the Muslim world in the 2000s. No doubt King Abdullah II has continued the path of moderation and interfaith dialog chartered by his father King Hussein. Yet since his accession to the throne in 1999 he has gone far beyond the vision of his father, and this, I would argue, is in large part due to his cousin’s brilliance, spiritual endowment, leadership and networking skills – Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad.

Prince Ghazi graduated with highest honors from Princeton with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, then from Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Modern and Medieval Languages and Literatures, then from al-Azhar in Cairo with a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy. The common thread in his writings is a quest to understand love, both divine and human (see his book, Love in the Holy Qur’an).

Officially Chief Advisor to the King on religious and cultural issues, the Prince chairs several pivotal boards of directors:



Much could be added to this list, but these are the instruments of power at his disposal to combat extremism, promote his conservative theological views, and spread his message of reconciliation, first between Muslims, and then between Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths.


Landmark achievements of the Hashemite Kingdom

Managing the endowments of the third holiest place in Islam is a task the Hashemites of Jordan have always undertaken with great pride. I remember living in East Jerusalem in the early 1990s when the golden “Dome” of the Rock was being replaced. No expense was spared and in less than two years it was finished, shinier than ever.

More significant historically was the Amman Message initiative. On the heels of the mayhem and havoc wreaked by the series of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s, King Abdullah II in 2004 wanted to issue a statement of what “true Islam” was and was not, backed by the most respected authorities of the Muslim world. The legitimacy of the declaration would be enhanced both by the number of top authorities involved and by their diversity, aiming to represent all the various Sunni and Shii currents of thought, prestigious institutions, legal schools and mystical orders.

According to the official website:


“In order to give this statement more religious authority, H.M. King Abdullah II then sent the following three questions to 24 of the most senior religious scholars from all around the world representing all the branches and schools of Islam: (1) Who is a Muslim? (2) Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)? (3) Who has the right to undertake issuing fatwas (legal rulings)?”


A solid consensus was reached, which was then ratified by all of the various international bodies of the Muslim umma (community) over the next year or so, from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah. Never before had such an official consensus been reached on that scale since the early days of the Muslim community (and if you know your history, you also know that the umma was torn by divisions right from the start – so this could actually be a first).

Even the word “consensus” (ijma‘ in Arabic) evokes pious, successful, even triumphant images and feelings among the faithful, since it is one of the four roots, or sources, of Islamic law. For Abdullah II to manage such a feat he needed more than just boldness and a keen sense of converging interests in the opening of an historic window. He wielded power – a mixture of political power with an even greater dose of diplomatic savoir-faire. None of the bigger, richer, more influential Muslims states could have pulled it off. The political dynamics of the Islamic world, as any attentive observer can see, are a minefield.

For me the evidence that the mind and heart behind all of this was Prince Ghazi comes in what followed in 2007. Responding to Pope Benedict XVI’s ill-fated Regensburg lecture in September 2006, 38 Muslim scholars from diverse backgrounds sent the Pope a letter to engage him in dialog. Exactly one year later (Oct. 13, 2007), a subcommittee of the Amman Message Initiative, now called the Common Word Initiative, sent an official letter to the Pope and “all Christian leaders” – a letter Prince Ghazi had written and which was now signed by 138 Muslim leaders from all over the world.

The title of the letter, “The Common Word,” is taken from Sura 3:64 of the Qur’an, which reads: “Say! O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you …” Yet the content of the letter is not centered on the next phrase of that verse (“… that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him”). Rather, the “common word” of this letter is simply and only “love of God and love of neighbor.” Noting that Muslims and Christians together make up more than half of the globe’s population, the letter asserts that world peace will never be achieved without reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the first place. This is not as difficult as it sounds, the letter goes on, since what unites the two communities is at the core of their respective traditions: love of God and love of neighbor:


“These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”


This letter produced a flurry of conferences since the fall of 2007, with the participation of mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals – a fact clearly under-reported by the media. The book to read about the impact of this letter is co-edited by Prince Ghazi himself and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (A Common Word).


The Muslim 500 Project

Another brainchild of Prince Ghazi’s is a yearly publication of “The 500 Most Influential Muslims.” Here is the third edition, the 2011 version, which came out in June 2012. Note as well that this venture’s website indicates a much more ambitious project than the yearly publication. It provides updates on the various figures on the 500 list, as well as current articles of interest to the wider Muslim community.

First, who are the people behind this project? The “chief editor” is Professor S. Abdallah Schleifer, a Jewish convert to Islam originally from Long Island, who worked as a journalist in the Middle East for over thirty years, with NBC and a string of other outlets at different times, both in print and in TV and radio production. He also taught journalism at the University of Cairo and more recently has been Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (both in Amman, Jordan) – which explains his role in this production.

Yet there is no doubt that Prince Ghazi is the prime mover behind this idea. He is the author of the most important introductory article of the 184-page document – “The House of Islam,” a ten-page introduction to what “Islam” is from a self-declared “traditional Islamic” point of view. This distinguishes the authors between two other currents – and notice that each of the top 50 names are evaluated in terms of their reactions and interactions with the “Arab Spring”:


“Our listings do tend towards a more traditional understanding of Islam than either Islamists (politically engaged fundamentalists) or modernists would have it (see: The House of Islam for the editors’ understanding of Traditional Islam), which means that considerations of what constitutes legitimate political rule does, to a degree, impact our ordering of the most influential in the political and religious domains, but not exclusively so. And because of the importance of ‘The Arab Spring’ in all its convoluted manifestations, our introduction to this year’s listings is inescapably far more ‘political’ in concern than would ordinarily be the case.”


So the traditionalist position defines itself over against the Islamists (those wielding and adapting modern ideologies so as to make the nation-state more “Islamic”) and the modernists (who would rather do away altogether with traditional notions of Islamic law and theology). The introduction then proceeds to quote Prince Ghazi at great length on the political philosophy of the traditionalist position. In a nutshell, the Qur’an and Sunna teach us that monarchy is the best way to lead a people in the Islamic way of life.

Though the modernists are dismissed as being "scorned by the masses," the ranking puts Dr. Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the eighth position. Still, for traditionalists like Prince Ghazi, both kings of Morocco and Jordan get the highest marks for their handling of the Arab Spring -- enact some reforms but keep to the status quo.

In light of the above, it is no coincidence that the number one figure is the Saudi King Abdullah. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is second, King Abdullah II of Jordan is fourth, the emir of Qatar is sixth, the Sultan of Oman is ninth, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is eighteenth, the Aga Khan VI is 22nd, and the Nigerian Sultan of Sokoto is 25th. The others in this space are all scholars, with Yusuf al-Qaradawi ranked 13th (on him, see previous blog).

One last thought on this: this "traditionalist" position is well named. It certainly reflects the reality of how power and authority were shared and contested in Islamdom over the centuries. Political authority was firmly in the hands of rulers (the generic word is "sultans," from the Arabic word for "authority"); but they had to continually negotiate with the Islamic scholars who were mostly jurists (generally known as ulama). For more details in this connection, see my blog in the Middle East Experience, "Of Ulama and Sultans."


Some thoughts about “power”

The website’s slogan is, “We ascertain the influence that individual Muslims have on the Muslim community.” So, besides political power, what are the criteria used for this ranking exercise? Here is a good starting point, taken from the Foreword:


“Influence is: any person who has the power (be it cultural, ideological, financial, political or otherwise) to make a change that will have a significant impact on the Muslim World. Note that the impact can be either positive or negative. The influence can be of a religious scholar directly addressing Muslims and influencing their beliefs, ideas and behaviour, or it can be of a ruler shaping the socio-economic factors within which people live their lives, or of artists forming popular culture. The first two examples also point to the fact that the lists, and especially the Top 50, are dominated by religious scholars and heads of state.”


So it’s clear for the editorial staff of the Muslim500 project that power – the ability to affect lasting change in Muslim society – is on many levels and the list seeks to reflect this reality. So when you visit the website you find a menu with twelve other categories besides political and scholarly influence: Administration of Religious Affairs, Preachers and Spiritual Teachers, Philanthropy/Charity and Development, Social Issues, Business, Science and Technology, Arts and Culture, Qur’an Recitors, Media, Celebrities and Sports Stars, Radicals, and Issues of the Day.

Another way of putting this is that there is both formal and informal power. The picture at the top of this blog reflects Prince Ghazi’s informal power. He not only wrote the Common Word document, but he used his influence to bring together a conference to discuss it, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding, and with many patriarchs, church leaders and scholars participating.

In May of 2012 (the month before my own visit) Prince Ghazi led a joint Muslim-Christian delegation to Nigeria to seek ways to diffuse tensions between the two communities. The high-level delegation was sponsored by the Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute and the World Council of Churches. Not surprisingly perhaps, he has been nominated three times already for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I began this blog by saying that if you want to get a feel for contemporary Islam, don’t overlook the influence of Jordan’s royal family, the Hashemites (see also my blog on PCI, Little Kingdom, Big Impact on Peace). On the one hand, they can take credit for the 2005 Amman Message, which arguably could turn out to be a watershed document in modern Islamic history. The same could be said for the Common Word initiative, which is still ongoing. On the other hand, depending on how the Muslim500 project is perceived and followed in Muslim circles over the next few years, Prince Ghazi’s influence (scholarly, political, relational, diplomatic, spiritual) – shall we say “power”? – may grow even more significantly.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad is nowhere mentioned in the 500 plus names on this “who’s who” list?

Thanks to an email this morning from Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, I read what he was calling a landmark speech on religious freedom by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see video version). Her speech was marking the State Department’s release of the 2011 International Freedom of Religion Report, which opens with the words of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):


“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


I will make some remarks based on Clinton’s speech, then I will share some thoughts from my ongoing research in Islamic law.


“All faiths everywhere have a stake in . . . religious freedom”

Hillary Clinton began with the crucial importance the free exercise of religion has had historically in the US: this freedom “is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest and a foreign policy priority.” But she also offers a bleak assessment of this freedom’s status in today’s world:


“It's particularly urgent that we highlight religious freedom, because when we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering. More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So when it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”


A central theme of her speech is the intimate connection between democracy and freedom of religion. In a day when so many countries have embarked on a course toward greater democracy, “from Tunisia to Burma, and many places in between,” decisions about how to safeguard the rights of religious minorities loom large on the horizon and to a large extent will determine how successful their democratic project will be. She mentions a visit two weeks before to Egypt and some emotional conversations she had with Coptic Christians who shared with her their anxiety about the future.

Linking religious freedom with democracy is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Clinton rightly pointed out that a state that is able to impart a sense of dignity and security to all of its citizens is one that is also likely to produce a vibrant civil society, along with political vitality and economic development.

As I was writing in my series on the sociology of religion, our world has become much more “religious” in the last forty years or so. Policy makers are finally becoming aware of this. Barack Obama wisely began his presidency with a watershed speech addressed to a billion and a half Muslims a few hundred feet from the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, the al-Azhar University.

At the same time, “religion” is tough to nail down for social scientists, mainly because as a marker of identity it impacts all these other areas of human society. Where does my faith end and my political convictions begin? Or how do my struggles to put food on the table for my children and my vote for a Salafi candidate for parliament connect? Or how do Christians and Druze position themselves to even survive in the red-hot caldron of Syria’s civil war – mostly between Alawite loyalists to the Asad regime and Sunni opposition movements? Clinton puts it well:


“So this is an issue that transcends religious divides. All faiths everywhere have a stake in defending and expanding religious freedom. I personally feel very strongly about this, because I have seen firsthand how religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It's been statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability. And it creates a climate in which people from different religions can move beyond distrust and work together to solve their shared problems.”


But the opposite is true too: “The absence of religious freedom can create a climate of fear and suspicion that weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their leaders. And that, of course, can make it more difficult to achieve national progress.”

Another important point Clinton makes is the connection between religious freedom and other human rights. “Every time people choose tolerance and respect over fear and animosity, they strengthen human rights for themselves as well as everyone else, because they affirm their shared humanity. . . . When people of all religions can practice freely, it creates an environment in which everyone’s freedom is more secure.” So religious leaders should take the lead in embracing “the principles of peace and respect.” They should both teach it and lead by example.

Governments, on the other hand, must have both legal and enforcement safeguards in place to make sure all citizens enjoy this freedom, no matter what the faith of the majority might be. Here, the role of constitutions is critical. By elevating universal rights, they “they provide guardrails against laws that deprive members of minority groups of their rights.”

This is the theory, of course – the ideals most states say they attempt to follow. The United States, for example, in its zeal to prosecute terrorists (the so-called “war on terror”), has and continues to act in ways that many see as violations of human rights. But what about freedom of religion? One question from the floor to Secretary Clinton was about islamophobia in the US and the firestorm about her own aide, Huma Abedin. "These are ongoing challenges" was the gist of her answer.

Though North Korea is undoubtedly the most egregious violator of religious freedom, and though several other countries like Burma, Russia, and China are singled out for acts of violence against religious minorities, the report worries about a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, but also in Europe. France and Belgium have passed laws that are clearly discriminatory toward Muslims too.

That said, Clinton is right to point out that evidence shows “that conflict is more likely when states have official religions and persecute religious minorities.” This is the case in many Muslim-majority countries.


The ongoing debate among Muslims about Islamic law

I’ve written a good deal about this before (in a blog and a long journal article), so just a few thoughts here. This summer I am reading some of the recent books (only in Arabic) of the most popular Muslim jurist, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. A 2009 edited book about him was entitled “Global Mufti.” 

That is because he left his native Egypt in the 1960s to settle in Qatar, where his weekly program on Al-Jazeera TV, Sharia and Life, is watched by over 80 million people worldwide. Then in February 2011 more than half a million Muslims thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo to hear him lead Friday prayers and preach. Though not directly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, his thinking is plainly in line with theirs.

I am studying Qaradawi as I have a paper to present on him at a conference on Islamic law in St Paul, Minnesota in September and a chapter to contribute to a forthcoming book on the “Objectives of Sharia” movement in that field. I mention this only to illustrate how crucial the issue of religious freedom is the Muslim world.

Qaradawi has consistently positioned himself as the leader of the “moderate” wing of the “Islamic awakening.” So on one side he castigates the Salafis (now very prominent in Egypt and elsewhere) for being so attached to the letter of the text of the Qur’an and Sunna (collections of reports on what the Prophet said and did) that they distort the spirit of Islam and drive away people that otherwise might be persuaded to convert. On the other side, he blasts the liberals who in the name of the Sharia’s objectives play fast and loose with the text and in the end cancel out anything they don’t agree with.

Qaradawi, as I read him, speaks from both sides of his mouth. The “moderate (or ‘middle way’) school” which he promotes, in his words, “believes in the unity of the human family; by virtue of creation all of it belongs to the One Lord, and by virtue of its blood line to one Father. It adopts tolerance between the religions and dialog between civilizations.”

Having said that, all the penalties that are clearly spelled out in the texts for specific crimes (the famous hudud, or “limits”) stand today and forever. One of those is the death penalty for apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith), not found in the Qur’an, but in the Sunna.

I’ve written elsewhere that the founder of the islamist party that now rules Tunisia, Rashid Ghannoushi, wrote a book when he was imprisoned by President Ben Ali (The General Freedoms of the Islamic State) in which he proclaimed democracy and human rights – including religious freedom – as at the heart of Islam. The law of apostasy, he wrote, is a misunderstanding of the early history of Islam. It was about a perilous time of war between a young and fragile Muslim community and its determined enemies. People who “left Islam” were in effect joining the enemy. That’s political treason, considered a capital offense by just about every nation. The Qur’an is plain: “There must be no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:152).

I have no doubt that Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, also a card-carrying Muslim Brother, agrees with Ghannoushi and with, I would add, the majority of Muslim leaders in the world. Qaradawi is a reminder, however, that old ways die slowly.


Freedom to enter and exit

Secretary Clinton had good reason to refer to the 1948 document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Apart from the obvious (but often difficult in practice) importance of protecting all minorities, especially religious ones, there is also the need to spell out the right for people to change allegiances – to convert to other faiths. The UDHR affirms, “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

I’ll leave the reader with a blog written by Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of the book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. Here Akyol is incensed by the intention of the Iranian authorities to execute an Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, because he grew up a Muslim. In his words,

“This verdict is not just shocking to modern ears, but also humiliating for all those Muslims who believe in human freedom. For how can a faith be noble if it dictates itself on people and kills those whose conscience dictates another faith? And how Muslims can be proud of their religion if is a community with a free entry but no free exit?”


This is a reminder to us all – whatever our own local challenges to a full implementation of religious freedom – that giving everyone the opportunity to freely believe and practice their faith (or not to!) is a “key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies.” In light of Secretary Clinton’s dire assessment of the current state of affairs, we all have an urgent task before us.

This exciting website just came online in June 2012 and it is already attracting lots of attention. A brain child of Carl Medearis, it is a great place for news on the Middle East from a variety of perspectives. The main items are Books Reviews (I have two already), Blogs (from a variety of religious and national perspectives), Israeli-Palestinian Issues, The Modern Middle East, and Video of the Day. It's very lively, interactive, diverse, thought-provoking, yet always seeking to facilitate conversation between parties not used to listening to each other.

In their own words, "Middle East Experience is dedicated to providing an open-source forum for all the varied voices from today’s Middle East. Whether the voice is Sunni Muslim or Shia Muslim, Christian or Jewish, religious or non-religious, all these distinct voices can be found in one place. From war, oil, economics, the environment, to religious extremism; what happens in the Middle East today affects everyone."


It’s not that Nigeria is at war. But it does feel like that for many Nigerians, and especially the Christians.

I begin to write this blog as my students take their final exam. I’m here in Lagos at the West Africa Theological Seminary to teach a two-week intensive course on Islam. From what I hear from my Nigerian colleagues and students, the recent campaign of church bombings by Boko Haram in the north is reopening old wounds and leading many to revive the old mantra of secession.

The Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden,” or “a sacrilege”) phenomenon is fairly recent. Around 2002 a Salafi preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, started a school in the northeast state of Borno, an impoverished area, even by Nigerian standards. The word spread and soon children from many others parts of the north enrolled in his school, known for "its strict adherence to Islamic law."

The emerging group was also known for its violent attacks, which continued, virtually unhindered in the north until 2009. By then, the Nigerian government had begun to investigate their activities and soon mounted a raid on their compound. In the course of the attack 700 Boko Haram members were killed and their leader was taken prisoner. He died shortly thereafter – “mysteriously” – in police custody.

Revenge and retaliation were soon the order of the day. Besides a number of attacks on police barracks, many of them targeted civilians, Muslims and Christians. On August 26, 2011, a Boko Haram member blew up the SUV he was driving into the fortified headquarters of the United Nations in the capital city, Abuja. The whole first floor was gutted. Twenty-three people lost their lives and seventy-six were injured. Ominously, this was taking terrorism to a higher, more sophisticated level.

Yet it would foolhardy to ascribe all the recent attacks on churches to Boco Haram (there have been well over 12 so far this year). For one, the group only claimed some of them; for two, some level of violence has been endemic to the Middle Belt of Nigeria (especially mwo4m) for years now. What is troubling, however, is that Boco Haram’s apparent strategy of fanning the flames of sectarian strife is beginning to work.

Actually, hundreds have died in such attacks, including Muslims, as Christians begin to retaliate. On June 17th three churches in Kaduna State alone were bombed: the ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) church of Wusasa, the Catholic cathedral of Christ the King in Zaria, and a third at Shalom Church in Trikania.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) issued a statement two days later, indicating that this violence meant that Boko Haram “had declared war on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria.” It then went on to state, “The pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of a Jihad.”

Yet for all its bravado – and real capacity to deliver terror – Boco Haram is just a recent thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian Federal Republic. Many other challenges stand in the way of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims here. And it’s mostly not about religion. But first, we have to take a step backwards to look at the bigger picture.


“Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”

John N. Paden, Clarence Robinson Professor of International Studies at George Mason University, taught for many years in Nigeria, and in 2008 wrote a fascinating book, Faith and Politics in Nigeria: Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. There are three main powers in Africa, he wrote. South Africa is mostly Christian. Egypt to the north is mostly Muslim. And in the middle you have Nigeria, containing the largest population of Christians and the largest population of Muslims. For that reason, it is “pivotal,” not only in Africa, but also in the wider Islamic world. If Muslims and Christians can work out their differences there, this can have repercussions elsewhere.

As Paden puts it, “Nigeria should not be considered a Muslim state in Africa, but rather a multireligious country with a secular constitution that serves as a bridge between Muslims and Christians in Africa” (23).

Of course, Nigeria is pivotal for other reasons. Their soldiers provide most of the manpower for peacekeeping missions run by the UN and the African Union. These have served in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a regional power as well, as it dominates the other states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, Nigeria is the fourth largest member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with the largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt. Finally, Nigeria is a member of OPEC and the 7th largest producer of oil.

In 2005 Nigeria was considered a candidate for permanent membership on the UN Security Council; that same year Cardinal Francis Arinze from southern Nigeria was a possible candidate as the next pope, mostly because of his experience with Muslims.

But what about Muslim-Christian tensions? Having now seen Nigeria’s global reach and the potentially “contagious” paradigm of Muslim-Christian harmony, we must look at its history to understand the longstanding wounds and tensions.


A very brief history of Nigeria’s north-south relations

The British brought together north and south Nigeria as one entity in 1914, though in practice they managed the territory as two separate colonies. Under the Sultan of Sokoto in the north they allowed the region to be ruled by the traditional mix of local customs and shari’a law, while grooming the military elite from their ranks. The south, on the other hand was favored in terms of education and industrialization. The north, as a result, remained relatively impoverished. After World War II, with the advent of decolonization, the British and the Nigerians moved in the direction of unified country (unlike Rhodesia, which split into Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance). Patten calls this a “fateful decision.”

To be fair, the British had also made an effort to reconcile the two regions, mostly by using the qur’anic paradigm of “the people of the book.” With time, it seemed that the northern rulers had absorbed this paradigm, and Christians and Muslims came to feel that they had more in common as followers of an Abrahamic faith than they had with the devotees of traditional African religion. Patten puts it this way:


“During the early independence era, there was close cooperation in the north between Muslims (whether emirs, civil servants, or teachers) and their Christian counterparts (whether chiefs, civil servants, or teachers). During this period, the premier of the Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello, initiated the northernization policy in which Muslim and Christian northerners were promoted rapidly, both at the regional and the national levels” (22).


This policy generally continued, though three events revived old tensions and created new wounds. The first was the 1966 coup in which junior officers mostly from the Christian southeast killed “key northern Muslim leaders, including Bello.” After a countercoup, however, the northerners selected from their midst a Christian officer, Yakubu Gowon, as chief commander of Nigeria’s army.

The other stress on the “people of the book” paradigm was the decision made by military ruler Ibrahim Bagangida in 1986 to have Nigeria enter the OIC. As a reaction, Middle Belt officers attempted a coup to overthrow Bagangida, but failed. Tensions, needless to say, persisted.

The third great stress to the system had been building for a long time. On several occasions, there had been talk at the federal level about “adopting shari’a law.” But starting in 2000, twelve states in all (out of a total of 36), with great fanfare, declared shari’a the law of their state. In practice, it only meant the establishment of shari’a courts which were to adjudicate cases of crimes specified in the Qur’an and Sunna – the hudud laws, or simply penal law.

In a chapter entitled “Politics and Sharia in Northern Nigeria,” from a book edited by Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek (Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi wrote this in 2007 about the aftermath of the “the shari’a affair”:

“Over a period of four years, the euphoria seems to have fizzled out. After the initial sensational sentences of amputations and caning, and even stoning to death (which was not carried out) the people have come to realize that nothing in reality has changed and that the poor seem to be the only ones facing the wrath of the law. There is now a focus on the real problems facing the people, and questions are being asked about good governance, competence, and genuine commitment to the welfare of the people” (185).


Sanusi, himself a Muslim, now Director of Nigeria’s Central Bank (my students pointed this out to me), continues with this thought, “The dialogue between Muslims and other Nigerians, as well as among Muslims, is ongoing.” One of the key questions to be discussed is this, he adds: “The role and limits of religion and religious laws in a liberal sense must be defined.”

Then he quotes the German philosopher Habermas, along with scholars of Islamic law I have often quoted myself, like the Harvard professor from Sudan, Abdullahi An-Nai’im, who argues that for Muslims to be faithful to Islam today, they must demand a secular state. After all, the sacred texts can be interpreted variously, so that if the state should impose one particular version, then those who disagreed would be violated in their conscience. States cannot impose theology, for fear of corrupting the essence of what it means to be a believer accountable to one’s Creator.

Sanusi then goes on to describe the spectrum of Muslim views in Nigeria, from very conservative and unbending, to very open and secular. He then concludes in these terms:


“The reality of the world in which we live, the demands of women for greater freedom, the requirements of good governance, and increased awareness of the capacity of religious demagogues for mischief will all push the debate toward more secular areas and reduce the religious tension. Ultimately, improvements in Muslims’ understanding not just of the law but also of the meaning of citizenship and the importance of personal liberty, are crucial to the future of this debate. Only then will it become difficult to use religion as a divisive tool for the attainment of political ends” (186).


Certainly, these are values crucial for nurturing the fabric of any democratic society – citizenship, civil and religious freedom, government accountable to the people, etc. But can both sides leave behind past grievances and prejudice to work together on building this kind of nation?


Where to from here?

Bill Hansen, Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), in Yola (Adamawa State in the northeast), has worked at AUN for over twenty years. In March 2012 in a Sociology of Islam listserv I follow, he reacted strongly to the allegation that Boco Haram was behind all the recent violence:


“There has been a tendency over the past few months by both the Nigerian state and the international media to blame anything and everything on Boko Haram and some sort of ‘jihadist/islamist’ uprising. For example, the violence of January 13/14 in Adamawa state, where I live, was initially attributed to Boko Haram. Now it looks increasingly like it was an intra-ethnic factional struggle in which neither of the parties were Muslim. Furthermore, there's often a sort of ‘wild west’ atmosphere in certain parts of Nigeria replete with bank and ‘stagecoach’ (car) robberies. Often these common crimes are attributed to BH.”


Then he pointed to the wider context, and in particular, to a lack of good governance over time:


“Nigerian society – all of it, Muslim as well as Christian – has been victimized by a half century of unremitting venality, brutality and predation by a predatory political class. Some (many) people, faced with what seems to be the absolute failure of the bourgeois, post-colonial state and its alleged democratic institutions (sufficient primarily for extracting oil for the benefit of foreigners and rich Nigerians), seek and think they'll find solutions in religious mysticism and some imagined 7th century political utopia they think they can (re)create.”


I certainly am no expert on Nigeria. Three two-week visits and some reading don’t count for much. Yet I was so heartened by the reaction of my Christian students while discussing Sanusi’s article, that I come away with the hope that enough Muslims and Christians at the grassroots will not only be reconciled, but also roll up their sleeves, work together to improve their country’s functioning at every level, and initiate a movement that will spread.


Three elements in that discussion gave me that hope:


1. My teaching about “religion” as a complex phenomenon shaped by and constantly remolded by a people’s history, politics, culture, economic realities, and sociology, was finally sinking in.

2. As a result, they were beginning to understand that not all Muslims conformed to their stereotypes – that Sanusi was also speaking for many Nigerian Muslims as well.

3. They were embracing Jesus’ message of transforming initiatives to build reconciliation and peace (yes, and in case you were wondering, they were required to read my three blogs on “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace”).

My Christian and Muslim readers, can I ask you to pray earnestly, with faith, that God will bless Nigeria with peace and prosperity for all? And, by all means, if you personally can do something about it, please do it!

Over the last ten years, four Muslims have been Nobel Peace Prize Laureates – two women, and two men. Just last year (2011), the prize was awarded to three women, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”: the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; her younger compatriot, Leymah Gbowee; and Yemeni activist, Tawakkol Karman. In 2003 it was Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s turn; then Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank.

This is good to keep in mind – especially in light of the very real issues of Islamic-related terrorism (which kills many more Muslims than non-Muslims, by the way) and the media’s tendency to focus on the egregious rather than on the peaceful and constructive.

I have in my hands a 92-page booklet published in 2007 by the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan: Islam, Peace and Tolerance (it is available online in pdf form). The Ahmadiyyas, who consider themselves Sunni Muslims, are viewed as heretical by many Muslims and hence persecuted, especially in Pakistan, Bengladesh and Indonesia. This is because they believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), was the Messiah or Mahdi. Still, they are perhaps the most effective Muslim missionaries worldwide, specializing in Qur’anic translation and distribution.

This booklet could have been written by any mainstream Sunni. Perhaps, I would venture, it fulfills a double function: defending Islam and urging fellow Muslims to treat them better. The author, Zahid Aziz, writes in his Preface that he aims to refute three common misperceptions: a) Islam is violent and intolerant to the point of waging jihad against all unbelievers; b) apostasy (leaving Islam) is punishable by death; c) Muslims are commanded to kill all who speak out against Islam. He goes on,

“These misconceptions have aroused a great deal of hostility against Islam in the West … Unfortunately, some sections of Muslims, by their own intemperate words and actions, are reinforcing exactly this alarming message of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims do not, of course, accept these extreme doctrines but have generally not realised the urgent and vital necessity of making strong, sustained efforts to remove these grave slurs from the good name of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad” (p. 1).

Aziz is right. For the reasons mentioned above, Muslims literally have to go out of their way to spell out the reasons for calling Islam “a religion of peace,” as President Bush put it, days after the September 2001 attacks.

Yet Muslims have been writing volumes on the subject, starting in the last century. I just picked out a dozen such books today from the U. of Penn library, maybe only one third of what is available; and there is so much more online.

In the little space I have here, allow me to make three points: some of the literature is defensive, even apologetic (especially online); how the classical shari’a worldview has evolved; research on nonviolence and peacebuilding in parallel with other faith traditions is on the rise.

A defensive, even apologetic discourse

When you think about the current international climate, it makes perfect sense. Islamophobia, especially in Europe, lurks behind every magazine, behind every gaze as Muslims walk the streets, ready to pounce and reinforce their sense of being marginalized and unwanted. With books like, Because they Hate (Brigitte Gabrielle) or The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran (Robert Spencer), many Muslims have developed a fortress mentality. So one bends over backwards to prove, with Qur’anic verses in support, that Islam is all about peace with God and peace with one’s neighbor.

In this respect, Zahid Aziz’s book is a perfect example. The title of the first chapter says it all: “Prophet Muhammad’s life: offering friendship and peace to the world.” Chapter 2 deals with “Freedom of religion in Islam,” Chapter 3 with “Islam’s teaching on response to abuse and mockery,” and Chapters 4 and 5 on jihad and just war theory (“When is war allowed?”). In the chapter on martyrdom, Aziz offers a helpful widening of the meaning of “martyrs” in the Qur’an and shows that suicide was always considered a sin in Islam. Then he totally spiritualizes the “virgins in heaven,” failing to mention that this is a very recent twist on an ancient tradition, still a popular view today.

“Defensive” is about an attitude – you feel embattled, so you defend yourself. “Apologetic” is about a strategy. You are not just defending your faith from slander; you are promoting it so as to make it as attractive as possible to your non-believing reader. In so doing, it doesn’t hurt (though it may hurt in the long run) to put the other down, ever so slightly. So his Chapter 8 is about “The Bible and war.” I mentioned some of this in one of my blogs about jihad. But I do find objectionable that the only passages he quotes from Jesus are: “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mat. 10:34) and “I came to send fire on the earth … division” (Luke 12:49, 51). Yes, he admits, these statements don’t necessarily refer to war.

Aziz should have also quoted what Jesus told the disciple who had just used his sword to cut off the ear of the man who was arresting Jesus in the garden. He said, "Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword" (Mat. 26:52). As it is, Aziz has distorted Jesus’ message for his own purposes.

Reinterpreting the classical shari’a worldview

I’ll keep this short, since I’ve written about jihad elsewhere. Islamic legal theory of the classical period (from the ninth to the thirteenth century) held that the world was divided into two spheres: the Abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Islam is to spread, either by means of conversion and/or by force of arms, until the whole world comes under the sway of Islamic rule. Notice, however, that this twofold division of the world is not in the Qur’an – it was a definition put forward by the jurists.

As mentioned elsewhere too, the jurists stipulated many rules of engagement in war – no harming the environment, and no killing of civilians, and especially women, children and monks. War had to be officially declared, truces and agreements with adversaries respected, and the like.

So in theory the natural state of international relations is war. In practice, though, Muslim leaders entered into agreements with their enemies, whether for truces or for long lasting covenants. Yitzhak Reiter, a senior fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and a veteran of Jewish-Muslim dialog in Israel, recently studied key legal opinions by prominent Muslim jurists (fatwas) relating to the issue of war and peace with the State of Israel (War, Peace & International Relations in Islam, 2011). He shows that historically, not only were the jurists much more flexible in their theory (some had a third category, “the Abode of Covenant”), but in practice, after the conquests and up to the fifteenth century, “Muslims reconciled themselves to a practical situation of ‘dormant jihad’, that is, jihad as a war only in theory” (p. 26).

Even the Ottomans, who claimed to reunite the Muslim world through their dramatic conquests from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, gave in to the idea that in light of the fact that the European powers had gained the upper hand (especially after the second siege of Vienna in 1683) peace treaties were an acceptable state of affairs. By the 19th century – the Treaty of Paris (1856) was a watershed in this regard – the Ottoman Empire had joined the international order, in effect exchanging shari’a for the prevailing legal norms of the time.

The same can be said for the twentieth century during which most prominent Muslim jurists followed the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) in developing a new, pragmatic and adaptive interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna). For them, jihad is mostly of the spiritual kind (controlling one’s base instincts in order to obey God); and when it comes to war, only a defensive jihad can be justified.

Notice that more than anything, this is a fundamental worldview shift: peace and not war is the natural state of international relations. Muslim majority states after WWII, after all, had to pay at least lip service to the canons of international law. At the same time, rogue groups following Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966) espoused a radical interpretation that harkened back to the classical doctrine of the two abodes.

Peacebuilding and nonviolence

With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from being a persecuted, minority faith, to one that came to be associated with the Empire itself. In light of the new reality, St. Ambrose and Augustine began a tradition of Just War theory, that is, counseling rulers on principles that in particular circumstances justify going to war or not. In essence, this is what the Muslim jurists were doing all along. And though Christians didn’t have (at least theologically) a similar dichotomous view of the world, the Crusades, the Reconquista and the extermination of native peoples in the Americas did find “Christian” justifications.

In my series on Jesus’ Sunna of Peace, I highlighted Glen Stassen’s pioneering work on “just peacemaking.” So I commend to you a recent book that builds on this paradigm (Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, ed.). Each of the ten principles is introduced, followed by a Muslim, Christian and Jewish reflection by a different author (and in different order each time). If you count the Muslim preface (there are two others), then eleven different Muslim scholars/activists contributed to this book. And they do so from very different angles, because this approach seeks to transcend the traditional dichotomy between Just War theory and pacifism. Leave the theory aside for a while, suggests Stassen, and adopt practices that have actually worked and brought about peace.

In the remaining space I have here, allow me to recommend six other books – in order of publication:

Said, Abdul Aziz, Nathan C. Funk and Ayse S. Kadayifci, eds., Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: Precept and Practice (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).

Under the auspices of the Center for Global Peace at American University, this is a book seeking to focus on Islam and peace by examining “a great living tradition and its role in the world today.” The editors add, “We have sought to present a selection from the best scholarly writings available on peace and conflict resolution in Islam, and organize them in one volume in relation to their differing interpretive, conceptual, and practical foundations” (3-4). What I find especially fascinating in this book, is its progression from the reality of the Muslim conquests, to the importance of good governance and laws, to conflict resolution, to nonviolence, and finally to the power of Sufism, Islam’s mystical stream: “peace through the power of love.” This section includes a chapter by the Sri Lankan Sufi shaykh who finished his career and was buried in Philadelphia.

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam: Theory and Practice (Gainesville, FL: U. Press of Florida, 2003).

Director of American University’s Peacebuilding and Development Institute, Abu-Nimer has been circling the globe teaching and practicing conflict resolution in many zones of conflict. This book summarizes some of the recent theory and goes into detail with regard to concrete efforts at peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians – an interesting contribution in light of his own Israeli-Palestinian background. Abu-Nimer is also the founder of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice and was the main partner in the Evangelical-Muslim dialog sponsored by Fuller Seminar in the mid 2000s. I too was a participant and contributed a chapter to the book that came out of those two conferences, Peace-Building By, Between and Beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, eds.).

Delhi Policy Group, War and Peace in Islam: Seminar Proceedings (Delhi Policy Group, 2003).

More difficult to obtain than the others, this book nevertheless is a goldmine if you want to get a feel for contemporary reformist Islam in India. At least one is from the ulama establishment, but most of the fifteen are influential scholars who seek to promote a progressive interpretation of the sources in an effort to counter the conservative (and they would add, “repressive” and “warmongering”) voices in many circles of the Subcontinent.

J. Dudley Woodberry, Osman Zümrüt, and Mustafa Köylü, eds. Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions (University Press of America, 2005)

This is a collection of papers presented by Muslim and Evangelical scholars in a 2001 conference in Samsun, Turkey. What is particularly helpful is the place given to the contentious issue of missionary activity on both sides.

Qamar-Ul Huda, ed., Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Preface by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010).

My top choice for a book introducing state-of-the-art peacebuilding from a Muslim perspective is this one. Its editor, Qamar-Ul Huda, is both senior program officer at the US Institute of Peace and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Here he brings together the contribution of nine other Muslim experts on the issue, including Abu-Nimer and the prominent Turkish scholar, Ibrahim Kalin. The other reason this book is so important is that after the expected first part which reexamines the sacred texts, the second part focuses on peacemaking education among Muslims, without forgetting the crucial role played by women in the home and within grassroots movements.

Amitabh Pal, “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011).

Managing Editor for The Progressive, Amitabh Pal is a writer who fondly remembers growing up in India with many Muslim friends. Here he seeks to set the record straight on the issue of Islam and violence, both from the religious texts and from many examples of peacebuilding, from the “pacifist sects” (like the Sufis and Ahmadiyyas), to the interfaith peace movement in Israel-Palestine, to the peaceful struggle of the Kosovar Albanians, to the amazing story of nonviolence among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan-Pakistan (I will come back to this). Despite Pal’s painstaking research, however, he is no specialist in Islam and he has clear political leanings. On the other hand, this serves as a useful antidote to the writings and activism of people like Mark Steyn, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horrowitz and Daniel Pipes.

Concluding this three-part series, I remind you of my purpose: “in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” in order to highlight practical peacemaking strategies. Our main finding was that Jesus proposed (and led by example) “transforming initiatives” – bold actions stemming from a forgiving heart that surprised opponents into considering reconciliation and even friendship.

We often referred to the writing of leading Christian ethicist, Glen Stassen, and in particular his groundbreaking work, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992). Besides his innovative and insightful focus on the Sermon on the Mount, Stassen also outlined “The Seven Steps of Just Peacemaking.” Partly through his leadership in the 1980s International Freeze Campaign (to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons), Stassen’s seven steps quickly became the “ten practices” that have now gained international recognition (see the 2nd edition of his edited work, with the contribution of thirty other academics and peace activists: Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

I will briefly summarize the ten practices; then offer a bare-bones summary of how they were successfully applied for the sake of dramatically reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and finally, I’ll highlight just a few initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.


Ten Practices for Abolishing War

In the following list (see Stassen’s homepage on this), notice the three headings under which the ten practices fall: “peacemaking initiatives,” justice,” and “love and community.” Think about our previous discussion about how Jesus consistently drew on the “Servant passages” of the prophet Isaiah and how justice was mentioned 16 times and peace 14 times. Add to this his incessant call to love even enemies and work at strengthening human solidarity, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example.

Here are the ten practices with a very short commentary:



1. Support nonviolent direct action.

Nonviolent Direct Action has been gaining dramatically worldwide, ending dictatorships in Iran in 1979, the Philippines in 1986, the nonviolent revolutions in Poland, East Germany, and Central Europe, human rights advocacy in Latin America, South Africa; more recently, the Arab Spring.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.



5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.



7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

On this last point Stassen writes,

“The existence of a growing worldwide people's movement constitutes one more historical force that makes just peacemaking theory possible. They learn peacemaking practices and press governments to employ these practices; governments should protect such associations in law, and give them accurate information.”


These principles of just peacemaking are on one level compatible with both just war theory and pacifism; it also challenges each one in practice. Here is Stassen’s evaluation,


“Each practice is recent in its widespread use, and is causing significant change. Together they exert strong influence, decreasing wars. Each is empirically happening and being effective in abolishing some wars. Each faces significant obstacles and blocking forces that are named in the chapters. We contend that just peacemaking practices are ethically obligatory for persons, groups, and governments to strengthen them and help overcome the blocking forces.”


Stassen offered a thought-provoking commentary on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Oslo (“What the Media missed in Obama’s Nobel Prize Address”). Though Obama mentioned “just war” three times, more importantly he spelled out all of the ten just peacemaking practices. Writing at that time, he seemed optimistic: “Missing his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking makes us miss his intention, and makes us miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope.”

Still, he cautiously ended with this: “Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up remembered as the Afghan War President.” Obama’s record on that issue, with the increase of troops in 2010 and the expansion of drone-initiated assassinations, is doubtful at best. It speaks more of realpolitik and of reelection calculus.

That said, his emphasis on the need to negotiate directly with Teheran, thereby sidelining the prevailing hawkish discourse in Congress, is spot-on. Along these lines, Congressman Dennis Kucinich boldly outlines a just peacemaking strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bellicose rhetoric toward Israel in particular.


“How Just Peacemaking Got Rid of the Missiles in Europe”

This is the title of Chapter 5 in Stassen’s 1992 Just Peacemaking book. An apt case study, here are its main lines. But first, consider the bleak Cold War reality of 1981:

“The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a buildup of dangerous medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Afghanistan was being invaded and oppressed. The Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) II Treaty was not being submitted for ratification. President Reagan was opposing the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and attacking the Soviet Union as the evil empire. The Soviet Union was blaming the United States for the nuclear buildup. Prospects for arms control were bleaker than they had been for years. We felt powerless, defeated, despairing. European distrust of the United States was growing visibly, focused especially by the rejection of SALT II, the buildup of medium-range Euromissiles, new Cold War rhetoric, and a statement made by President Reagan that nuclear war in Europe was fightable. The long friendship built up by cooperation and sacrifice in World War II and the Marshall Plan was (sic) painfully crumbling” (p. 114-115).

Over the next few years dramatic steps were taken on all sides, starting with the peace movement in Europe – unsurprisingly powerful in Germany, as the Germans in particular were ground-zero for a potential nuclear war. Due to strong popular opposition to the Euromissiles on the domestic front, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Social Democratic Party) proposed a “mutual zero solution” at his party’s congress in 1981. This was the idea that Randall Fosberg had presented two years earlier at a conference in Louisville, KY, giving birth to the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Stassen was in attendance.

Increasingly, the Freeze Strategy Committee, on which Stassen served for three years, came to realize that pushing for zero new US deployments and opposing the Soviet medium-range missiles was in the interest of both parties. A mutual freeze could then lead to actual reductions in each party’s arsenal. This made sense not only because these weapons were so costly but also because Pershing II and cruise missiles could destroy the Soviet heartland. And even if the US refrained from using them, so many false warnings had already occurred in the Soviet defense system that the likelihood of a catastrophe was extremely high.

During the school year 1981-1982 Stassen was on sabbatical in Germany, during which time he was the Freeze Campaign’s International Task Force representative to the European peace movement. While attending the annual meeting of the Christian Council on Approaches to Defense and Disarmament, he met General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, former commander of the NATO Defense College and founder/leader of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. He was also connected to several influential politicians in the West German government.

Stassen asked to meet with him, which he accepted. Realizing the momentous implication of this meeting, Stassen first devoted himself to prayer. “But who was I to be suggesting a transforming initiative by the West German government?” he mused.

Amazingly, Stassen’s plea fell on willing ears. General van Baudissin, who was hearing this scheme for the first time, answered that if the Germans and the Dutch proposed the Freeze idea NATO might accept. Then within weeks, in October 1981, Bonn, West Germany’s capital, witnessed the largest peace demonstration in its history, with several others following. In the next few days, over a million Germans marched for peace and for an end to the deployment of medium-range missiles, whether by the US or the Soviet Union.

On October 21, 1981, at the NATO meeting “the German and Dutch ministers initiated the zero solution proposal: NATO would agree to zero US deployments if the Soviet Union would reduce their medium-range missiles to zero” (p. 122). All agreed, except the US. But then, realizing that popular opinion had shifted dramatically, President Reagan announced on November 18, 1981 that he would support the zero solution.

To make a long story short, after much political wrangling between Congress and the White House and at least nine dramatic independent initiatives put forward by the new Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1987, the zero solution became reality.

What in the end broke the vicious cycle of nuclear buildup? Stassen cites three new factors: “the strategy of independent initiatives, the pressure of the people, and Gorbachev’s perception of the needs and opportunities of his situation” (p. 133). Notice too the heavy irony of it all:


“The Reagan Administration, which worked to undermine the Freeze Campaign, was led to its greatest foreign policy success by the very Freeze Campaign it had opposed. And the Freeze Campaign, which had been so maligned by President Reagan, was given its greatest success because President Reagan agreed that the solution should be simple and readily communicated to the people. Both were thinking the key is the grass roots, the people. God works in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to perform. Thanks be to God. Thanks also to the people” (133-4).


Israeli-Palestinian just peacemaking

I will no doubt write more on this topic later, so just a few comments for now … Perhaps the oldest transformative initiative since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel was the founding of the peace village, Neve Shalom (Hebrew), or Wahat al-Salam (Arabic), “Oasis of Peace." Just off the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is the Trappist abbey of Latrun, known for its spirituality, hospitality, and wine (maybe not in that order!).

In 1970, a Dominican brother, Bruno Hussar, obtained about one hundred acres of land from the Latrun abbey in order to start the village of peace so close to his heart. Born in Egypt from a Jewish family, Hussar was no stranger to the contradictions, humiliation, and conflict that comes from being part of a minority, branded as the “other” by the mainstream. He was dreaming of a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together in mutual respect and peace. In a book that tells his story, he writes that such people “would find in this diversity a source of personal enrichment.”

And enrichment they did find … today there’s a waiting list of 500 families! Though new land is cleared for houses and agriculture every year, growth will have to stay limited. Yet the dream of having our children learn about their faith and the faith of their neighbors in elementary school and sharing religious holidays can be realized in many other settings as well.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than just religion. Still, neighbors in this Oasis of Peace can sit under a Jewish Sukah during the Feast of Tabernacles or partake in a Ramadan fast-breaking meal, and the conversation, while still heated at times, can be very productive. After all, the conflict at heart is about two national groups learning to live together in dignity, justice and peace. Bruno Hussar’s transforming initiative is helping people on both sides (and beyond) visualize what it might take to get there.

Very briefly, let me end with two other initiatives. The first one I wrote about at length in my last chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – the Christians Peacemaker Teams, who just celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2011. I had the privilege of visiting the team in Hebron several times while doing research in that city in 1999. They do amazing work in the footsteps of Jesus by coming alongside existing peace and human rights groups in areas of conflict. They only come by invitation. They now have active projects in Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Hebron and the village of At-Tuwani, the US-Mexican border, and among First-Nation peoples in both the US and Canada. Take a look at their introduction video.

The photo above pictures some of the participants of the 7th Bili’in Conference held in Hebron in April 2012 knocked to the ground by Israeli soldiers. A nonviolent grassroots Palestinian movement, these yearly conferences are led by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements. Bili’in is a Palestinian village that, like many others near the 1967 “Green Line,” has suffered immensely as a result of the Israeli separation wall. Yet more than any other villages, it has been the site for concerted, consistent and extremely courageous protests against the wall and Israeli occupation in general.

The highlight of the first day of the conference in Bili'in was an address by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the second day was spent in the old city of Hebron, and the third in East Jerusalem. EU member of parliament Louisa Morgantini was in attendance for the three days, as were many internationals from various NGOs.

A group from the conference had decided to eat at the Ibrahimi School, one of the oldest schools in the West Bank (see a video shot by the students in 2011), no doubt out of solidarity. CPTers have famously accompanied children to school to protect them from the attacks of local Israeli settlers. But coming out after lunch, as the group walked back on the Palestinian side of the street (Palestinians are not allowed to walk on the much wider Israeli side), they were violently beaten by Israeli soldiers. Just to say, nonviolent protest in the West Bank is not for the fainthearted!

Second, I want to recommend to you a 2010 documentary that powerfully fleshes out Jesus’ sunna of peace. I have commented it in more detail in a blog about Bethlehem posted elsewhere. Its title is Little Town of Bethlehem and it weaves the stories of three peace activists now working together – an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim from a Bethlehem refugee camp and a Palestinian Christian, whose father founded the Bethlehem Bible College where I taught for three years. The film’s official launch in 2011 was coordinated with an international campaign for nonviolence.

So my final word is this. Jesus as prophet, or simply as a sage who taught by word and deed how to love enemies and make peace, can inspire and guide people of all faiths today. Naturally, as a Christian, I believe he’s much more than that. But as I have argued in these three blogs, nonviolent direct action was famously developed by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others – and it can be traced back to the “transforming initiatives” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That’s a great place to start. Other faiths have their own resources for peace, as does Islam in particular – the subject of a coming blog.

Before I get to the third and last installment of this series on Jesus as the sunna (“way,” or “example”) of peace, here is some research on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve found very helpful. I write this with both trepidation and excitement, as events continue to unfold in places like Syria and Yemen, where students and ordinary people continue to risk their lives to fight tyranny in a nonviolent way. This is where we are headed in the third blog – to the now well accepted “Just Peacemaking” theory, which includes the nonviolent direct action that Gandhi and others saw in Jesus’ life and teaching.

In Gandhi’s own words, “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? p. 3).

Let me emphasize once more that … Jesus isn’t just for Christians, or Muslims who hold him in the highest regard, for that matter! I teach comparative religion and I have found much to learn from and emulate in the lives of religious exemplars like Muhammad, Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha), Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Ramakhrishna. But when it comes to laying out practical strategy for building peace in a world of conflict, Jesus’ example and teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount) is indispensable.

In particular, as Muslims and Christians discuss these issues, it really helps that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Here is how New Testament scholar N. T. Wright makes this point:

“Jesus was proclaiming a message from the covenant God, and living it out with symbolic actions. He was confronting the people with the folly of their ways, summoning them to a different way, and expecting to take the consequences of doing so. Elijah had stood alone against the prophets of Baal, and against the wickedness of King Ahab. Jeremiah had announced the doom of the Temple and the nation, in the face of royalty, priests and official prophets … all were accused of troubling the status quo. When people ‘saw’ Jesus as a prophet, this was the kind of model they had in mind” (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 167-8).

First we’ll dig a bit deeper into the central message Jesus proclaimed and embodied – the Kingdom of God – and in particular its interweaving of peace, justice and nonviolence. Then we’ll look again at the Sermon on the Mount.


A Kingdom of Peace and Restorative Justice

To begin, let’s revisit the prophetic actions on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, while the crowds jubilantly proclaimed him Messiah. Intentionally fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), Jesus directly confronted the ideology of the zealots who claimed violence was the only way to deal with the Roman occupation. Yes, he was the promised King; no, he was not mounted on a war horse, but rather on a donkey that had never been ridden.

Another clue pointing to Jesus as a king of peace and nonviolence is found in Zechariah’s original prophecy, when he wrote, “Look, your king is coming to you … humble, riding on a donkey.” The word for “humble” either in Hebrew or Greek is used, and especially by Matthew, to mean “nonviolent” – as in this Beatitude: “God blesses those who are humble [or meek], for they will inherit the whole earth.”

Clarence Jordan in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount notes that this word is used of two men in the Bible who were anything but doormats. Moses, the great prophet who confronted the power and wrath of Pharaoh, was also described as “more humble than any person on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Then Jesus himself once said to the crowd,


“Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat. 11:29).


Jordan concludes that the word “tamed” is more appropriate than “meek” or “humble.” He goes on, “Both of them [Moses and Jesus] seemed absolutely fearless, … and completely surrendered to the will of God” (quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 40).

Back to Jesus’ riding on a donkey as he approached Jerusalem, and the last blog … At one point Jesus begins to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” Foremost on his mind, Israel’s king is thinking about peace. Yet this only deepens his sorrow, for he knows that his people’s inclination toward rebellion and violence will only lead to the city’s destruction. It’s just a matter of time.

Then he enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and chasing out the merchants of animals for the sacrifices. Recent scholarship has confirmed that this is no “cleansing” of the Temple, as was often put in the past. This is no reform movement. Rather, as someone who has already predicted on six occasions that the Temple was going to be razed, Jesus symbolically declares the Temple’s function null and void. Tragically, it now awaits destruction.

This said, as the John’s gospel emphasizes so clearly, Jesus is the new Temple. In fact, Jesus chases the merchants right at the beginning of his ministry, and in response to the Jewish leaders’ ire, he responds, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John then explains that by “temple” Jesus meant his own body. Thus for Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, rendering the Jerusalem Temple and its animal sacrifices obsolete. Judaism too was moving on – and especially after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

While carrying out this action, Jesus quotes from two prophets. The first is Isaiah, from a passage in chapter 56, in which God says, “… my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (v. 7). God mourns the exclusion of so many people, like the eunuchs, the foreigners and the outcasts. David Garland in his NIV Application Commentary (p. 438), connects this passage to Jesus’ action in the Temple:

“During his entire ministry Jesus has been gathering in the impure outcasts and the physically maimed, and has even reached out to Gentiles. He expects the temple to embody this inclusive love…. In Jesus’ day the temple had become a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations.”


The Temple system was not only excluding those God longed to reconcile to himself. Even on its own terms, it was patently unjust. As Oxford scholar Markus Bockmuehl shows, the Temple operations were overseen by a wealthy religious and political elite who only recently had brought traders into the outer courtyard (“the Court of the Gentiles”). The picture painted by historians demonstrates how courageous and radical Jesus was on that day – and why he was killed:


“The Mishnah [Jewish oral tradition that was gradually being written down at the time] gives evidence of hugely inflated price fixing for sacrificial doves, which were the offering of the poor…. During those two decades (of Jesus’ teenage years and adulthood) Annas and Caiaphas together enjoyed unrivalled power as a result of successful collaboration with the occupation forces of Rome…. mwo4mephus and the rabbinic writings also concur in offering some most remarkable descriptions of the utter luxury and extravagance of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem” (This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah, p. 70-1).

This brings me to highlight the astounding match between Jesus’ deliberate confrontation of the powers and authorities of his day on the issue of justice (Stassen and Gushee count 40 such occasions in the Synoptic Gospels) and the sixteen passages in Isaiah announcing God’s coming reign in terms of justice. Specifically in Isaiah, God’s justice is seen as “deliverance of the outcasts, the poor and the oppressed from the domination of greed and concentrated power, and the restoration of community with peace. It called for repentance for injustice” (Stassen and Gushee, p. 355). Stassen and Gushee catalog in great detail the many instances in the gospels where Jesus confronts injustice in the four areas that Isaiah was also concerned about:


  • injustice of greed (aggravating the poverty and hunger of the masses)
  • injustice of domination (e.g., the Pharisees’ exclusionary interpretation of the law, or Caesar’s divine claim on a coin)
  • injustice of violence (the killing of the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptist, and the violent tactics of the zealots; when the war comes to you, said Jesus, don’t participate in the fighting, but rather “flee to the mountains,” Mark 13:14)
  • injustice of exclusion from community (Jesus reached out to women, lepers, tax collectors, Roman officers, etc.)

As just one example, here is a key Isaiah passage Jesus draws from in his ministry – a passage that intimately connects peace, justice and nonviolence:


“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.

He is my chosen one, who pleases me.

I have put my Spirit upon him.

He will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

He will not crush the weakest reed

            or put out the a flickering candle.

He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

He will not falter or lose heart

            until justice prevails throughout the earth.

I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.

I will take you by the hand and guard you,

            and I will give you to my people, Israel,

            as a symbol of my covenant with them.

And you will a light to guide the nations.

You will open the eyes of the blind.

You will free the captives from prison,

            releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Is. 42:1-4; 6-7)



God’s reign of peace in the Sermon on the Mount

Once more, it truly pays to know the immediate backdrop of Jesus’ teaching, so as to be able to understand it in context. Recall that out of the seventeen passages in Isaiah that describe God’s future reign of deliverance, sixteen of them mention justice (like the one above) and fourteen mention peace.

Jewish indignation and anger at Rome’s domination was at an all-time high in Jesus’ day. His message of peace and reconciliation was sorely needed – and angrily resisted in some quarters. Here is how Stassen and Gushee put it:


“Scholars confirm that in Jesus’ time Jewish hatred of Rome was based on the religious drive for purity from corruption by foreign influences and power, on the political drive for independence and on economic resentment of the injustice of Roman taxes. Hatred and resentment often boiled up into guerilla movements and insurrections against Roman rule. Violent resistance was supported not only by the insurrectionists, who were later called ‘Zealots’, but by most groups in Israel, including most Pharisees” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 152).

In fact, the Jewish followers of Jesus did flee Jerusalem in 70 CE and until Constantine’s rise to power in the fourth century, the church, both Jewish and Gentile, did obey Jesus’ mandate of nonviolence and love of enemy. The last book written in the New Testament, John’s Revelation, draws a sharp contrast between the wanton violence of the Beasts and the faithful martyrdom of the Lamb’s disciples. Rome can never win by brute force.

What about the Sermon on the Mount? Recall that it is actually fourteen triads of traditional righteousness, followed by a vicious circle, and then a transforming initiative meant to deliver a person from that bondage (for more details, click on "14 Triads of the Sermon on the Mount" on Glen Stassen's faculty page).  So for example …


“You shall not kill” leads to the trap of escalating anger; the only escape is to “go and be reconciled” (Mat. 5:24).

“You shall not commit adultery” gets one stuck with a lustful eye and adultery of the heart; the only way out is to remove the cause of temptation – Jesus’ graphic hyperbole of gouging out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand (5:29-30). He might have said today, “destroy your laptop so as to starve your addiction to pornography.”

“Do not judge, lest you be judged” will mean you will be judged by the same measure – a scary thought! The solution is to “first take the log out of your own eye” (7:5).


In the last blog, we saw the four transforming initiatives that lead us out of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. I want to end here with the follow-up to that paragraph.

Jesus says, “you have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy” (5:44). In this case he follows up with three transforming initiatives and then showcases the vicious circle this leads to – here, ending up like the pagans who only love those who love them, or the tax collectors who are only kind to their friends. That’s a deplorable situation to be in, Jesus implies!

This traditional teaching (actually coming from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Qumran Community) leads to the climax of the six teachings in chapter five. The three transforming initiatives are: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (5:44-45).

“Love you enemies” is not about some drippy sentimentality. It’s about doing good to one’s enemy, returning good for evil, and breaking a dangerous cycle. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Never pay back evil with more evil.” He then quotes Proverbs 25:21-22:


“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.

If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads” (Rom. 12:17, 20).


What is also clear, as is throughout Jesus’ teaching, is that God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace floods into human experience as pure grace and mercy. Then on that basis we are given the privilege to participate in that gracious reign. Here, we are called to become like our Father who gives rain and sunshine to all by offering love and prayers to our enemies.

After the vicious cycle, Jesus offers a summary verse (as he does in 7:12, the famous “Golden Rule”): “But you are to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But, this is not moral perfection – Greek style – Stassen and Gushee hasten to add. The Hebrew and Aramaic meaning behind the Greek word means “complete” or “all-inclusive.” Love should encompass everyone, enemies included, Jesus is saying. So the transforming initiative here – and with it the apprenticeship of a whole new lifestyle and worldview – is to show love and kindness to all, with no exceptions.

Much more could be said, naturally. But hopefully this background will open the way for the next piece – how Jesus’ way can help guide us Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith, to make this a more peaceful world.

In the earliest documents of the Islamic community, we find that the word sunna (the path, or the example of a tribal leader in seventh-century Arabia) was applied to the new religious leaders – Muhammad, of course, but also the first caliphs (or successors) like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and even governors of far-flung provinces. Within a century or so, sunna was used almost exclusively of the Prophet himself; and still later, “the Sunna” referred to the growing collection of hadiths (oral reports about what he had said or done), which by the third century were being weeded out in order to find the most reliable accounts, which were then included in the most authoritative written collections. Hence arose the “tradition” of the Prophet Muhammad, or simply, the Sunna, the second most authoritative text for Muslims after the Qur’an.

Here, in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the longest single teaching of the gospels in Matthew 5-7. The path of Jesus that I highlight here is peacemaking.

Isa bnu Maryam, or “Jesus, son of Mary” is mentioned in 93 qur’anic verses, where we read the following facts, among others:

- A whole sura is named after Mary (Sura 19) and the Qur’an says much more about her than does the New Testament

- Mary gave birth to Jesus a virgin (3:47; 19:20-21)

- He was given “clear signs” and God “strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (2:87)

- By God’s leave he cured the lepers, opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead (5:110)

- Isa is a “word” God “cast upon Mary, and a spirit from him” (4:171)

- Eleven times he is given the title “Messiah”

- He is a prophet of God, the one directly preceding Muhammad (33:7; 57:26, and elsewhere)


These statements and others are also found the gospels. And though Jesus does not call himself a prophet (others do), he certainly stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in his deeds. On the mount of transfiguration (see Matthew 17 and Mark 9), both Moses and Elijah appear, while Jesus is transformed into a dazzling white figure before the eyes of Peter, James and John. Hence, the title of this blog, “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace.”

A quick parenthesis: the English translation I’ll be using is the New Living Translation (2nd edition, 2004), which I consider to be the state-of-the-art translation, both because of the team of scholars who worked on it and because of its philosophy of translation (“dynamic equivalence”) drawn from the fields of linguistics and anthropology. The result is a text, which in the words of the editors, seeks to “communicate as clearly and powerfully to today’s readers as the original texts did to readers and listeners in the ancient biblical world.”

Now to he Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a series of blessings Jesus pronounces, the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:3-10):


3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

4 God blesses those who mourn,

   for they will be comforted.

5 God blesses those who are humble,

   for they will inherit the whole earth.

6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,

   for they will be satisfied.

7 God blesses those who are merciful,

   for they will be shown mercy.

8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,

   for they will see God.

9 God blesses those who work for peace,

   for they will be called the children of God.

10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”


Note that the first and last blessing are about receiving or belonging to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which in Mark and Luke is rendered “Kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that Jesus’ first preaching was on this theme:


“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)


Notice too those who are singled out for God’s blessing: the poor and spiritually hungry, those who mourn, who are humble, who “hunger and thirst for justice” (or “righteousness”); the merciful, the pure in heart, the “persecuted for doing right” and the peacemakers. It’s the last category I am highlighting here.

Coming into Jerusalem for what he knows is his last week on earth, Jesus rode on a donkey, no doubt reenacting the prophetic words of Zechariah, “Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9).

Spontaneously, the crowds threw their cloaks on the donkey’s path and waved olive branches, crying out, “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)

As it turns out, the prophet that Jesus quotes the most is Isaiah, and for Isaiah peace is one of the five characteristics of the coming reign of God (which will be inaugurated through the coming of his “Servant,” or Messiah): 1) deliverance or salvation (17 times); 2) righteousness/justice (16 times); 3) peace (14 times); 4) joy (12 times); 5) God’s presence as Spirit or Light (9 times).

Then Luke, just after depicting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, describes the following scene:


41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 … Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”


Jesus weeps over the city that has killed so many prophets in the past, and which is now missing its greatest opportunity – in fact, its very salvation. If only it “would understand the way to peace,” Jesus mourns. But it’s too late, as “peace is hidden” from their eyes. Had they recognized and embraced him as their Messiah, this tragedy would have been averted.

Making peace is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew five. But just before that, allow me to interject a thought that I will pursue in greater detail in the next blog. Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, argue convincingly (following other New Testament scholars) that the Sermon on the Mount has mostly been misunderstood in the past. Instead of seeing it as a series of dyads (“you have heard it said … but I tell you”), we should rather see it as a series of fourteen triads (traditional righteousness – vicious cycle – transforming initiative).

So the paragraph entitled “teaching about revenge” should be read as a triad (and here I follow their translation):


Traditional Righteousness:

Mat. 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Vicious Cycle:

Mat. 5:39: “But I say to you, do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

Transforming Initiative:

Mat. 5:40-42: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.”


The law of the talion (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is mentioned three times in the Torah (in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy); it also appears in the Qur’an. In the context of the Ancient Near East, it goes back to Babylonian law. But Jesus warns that this seemingly just path of revenge is in fact a dead end. Literally, Jesus says, “do not resist evil.” But that makes no sense, since Jesus often confronted evil, not least when he chased the money changers from the Temple with a whip, while overturning their tables.

Evil here in the Greek can either mean “an evil person” or “by evil means.” Further, Walter Wink showed that the Greek word “resist” or “retaliate” was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint) and in the literature of the time (mwo4mephus and Philo) and most often meant “armed resistance in military encounters.” Hence, Stassen and Gushee’s translation here.

So if we are not to retaliate, even within the confines of the law of the talion, what are we to do? Is Jesus asking us to passively sit by, absorb the blows and shut up? No, he is calling for action, but one the adversary is not expecting. The action called for is a “transforming initiative” – an act that springs out of a forgiving heart; yet an act too, which forces the other to confront his or her wrongdoing and consider changing directions. It’s an initiative that seeks to change the adversarial dynamics into friendly ones; to disarm haughtiness and aggression and open the way for a human relationship built on respect.

The “transforming initiative” section here contains four imperatives in the Greek text: “turn,” “give,” “go,” and “give.” This is how Stassen and Gushee explain the “turning of the other cheek”:


“Turning the other cheek has been misunderstood in Western culture that thought there were only two alternatives – violence or passivity. But since Gandhi and King, we can appreciate Jesus’ teaching better. In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.”

Turning the other cheek in this case, then, is to resist evil in a nonviolent way.

What about the coat? According to the Law of Moses (Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13), a creditor who lends something to a needy person may take his or her coat as a guarantee, but must give it back before sundown in case that person needs it to keep warm at night. Here the rich person sees a loophole: he’ll take the poor guy’s shirt as a guarantee and not have to give it back until he’s repaid – likely with interest. What Jesus says next is both humorous and shocking: “give him your coat too,” means that you, the poor one, will stand naked in court, so as to graphically expose the rich man’s greed, pour ridicule upon him and hopefully lead him to repent of his evil ways. The weak person thus seizes the initiative and confronts the injustice; and in so doing, he displays courage and strength of character.

Going the extra mile with a Roman soldier is to show kindness to one’s enemy. A hated symbol of Rome’s military occupation of “Palestine” (its Roman name at the time), the soldier was in fact just a pawn in a wider system of oppression. While some Jewish men, the so-called “zealots,” chose to kill Roman soldiers when possible, Jesus calls instead to offer blessing. By walking an extra mile, the Jew had the chance to catch the soldier “off guard” and initiate friendship. This initiative too aims toward peace and reconciliation. We know of course the story about the Roman centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his young servant – and do so at a distance, because he did not consider himself worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. Jesus turned to the crowd, saying, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Mat. 8:10)

“Give to the one who begs.” This last transforming initiative must be read in context. Jesus spent his ministry mostly in the Galilee, a depressed area at the time, as many farmers had been driven off their lands by a combination of unfair taxation (both Roman and Jewish) and the practices of rapacious absentee landlords from Jerusalem’s wealthy elite. In fact, giving to beggars, or any kind of charity for that matter, was the only way of doing justice to the most vulnerable in a day when the gap between rich and poor had grown scandalously wide. Almsgiving is the only remedy when there is no other welfare system and injustice grinds the poor into the dust.

As I have written recently, justice was woven into the fabric of the Mosaic Law. Not just the command to harvest fields only once and allowing for the poor to glean, or even the right of the needy to glean the fields left fallow every seventh year; the centerpiece of the divine blueprint for social justice was the Jubilee Year. All debts had to be forgiven and all property acquired in the last forty nine years had to revert to the original owner. Justice meant the poor got a chance to climb out of poverty when the playing field was leveled every fifty years.

These were all meant to be signs – the sunna, if you will – of the coming Messiah: he would bring peace between nations, justice for the most disadvantaged, welcome to foreigners, friendship and reconciliation with enemies. In the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier,


“For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;

   his word will go out from Jerusalem.

The Lord will mediate between nations

   and will settle international disputes.

They will hammer their swords into plowshares

   and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will no longer fight against nation,

   nor train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:3-4).


What this practice of peace means in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of the next blog.

 The Hebrew Bible – or the Christian Old Testament – begins with God creating the world in six days. On the sixth, after bringing forth all the animals, God created human beings in his image, both male and female. Then in verse 28 of Genesis 1 we read:


“Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.’”


In this creation story God imparts to humanity the mission to “rule” over the earth and its creatures. The common word used by Christians for this is “stewardship,” meaning Adam and Eve and their descendants remain accountable to God for the way in which they manage the affairs of the earth.

In a similar way, the Qur’an teaches that Adam was placed on earth as God’s “caliph” – a word also used for the political successors of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. But the word connotes authority as well, as the caliphs were empowered to rule in the Prophet’s stead. But more importantly, in the context of this verse in Q. 2:30, Adam is called to be God’s steward and trustee, ruling with wisdom over the creatures under him. For only he and his kind are given “the names of all things,” an expression that commentators have tied to humankind’s ability of reason and moral discernment.

I recently wrote about the environmental dimensions of humanity’s trusteeship on earth. Here I begin a series on faith and poverty, spurred on by a Lenten program at my church focused on the poor. In a blog about Fair Trade, I explored some of the complexities of the notion of poverty, emphasizing in particular the unjust structures of global trade that hinder the economic development of the poorest countries. I’ll come back to the idea of structural injustice in another blog, but from a different angle.


A broad approach to eradicating poverty

Poverty is no mere academic discussion. It is achingly real, and what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (living below $1.25 a day) affects 1.29 billion people worldwide, which represents 22 percent of the developing world. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, hunger is the world’s top health risk and one in seven people go to bed hungry every day. If, as God made clear to Cain, we are “our brother’s keeper,” this should alarm us. After all, stewardship of creation includes caring for our fellow humans too.

My main point in this blog will be to stress that as people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, God calls us to face this issue head on from both the macro level (thinking about the poorest of the poor worldwide) and the micro level (what we can do locally). God also expects us to work simultaneously on long term solutions, tackling systemic injustices globally, nationally and even locally; and on short term poverty alleviation, that is, assisting victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Large relief and development organizations seek to work at both ends of this spectrum: providing urgent care for refugees, for example, but also finding ways to provide education for the children, coaching for the mothers, professional training for women and men – and all this while seeking to facilitate their transfer to a more stable and long term setting.

Though Muslims and Christians work with similar texts on the issue of creation, their traditions highlight different aspects of the “righteous society.” Still, both faiths historically have impelled their adherents to care for the poor in a holistic fashion.


An Islamic approach to poverty reduction

Just as there is no “Islamic” way to organize government (in spite of what many islamists might think), there is no one “Islamic” approach to tackle hunger in a twenty-first century nation-state. During the Cold War years, many Muslim scholars were prescribing some form of socialism. At the same time, oil-rich Gulf countries were eager to work with western nations, and apart from some of the strictures of “Islamic banking” (finding ways around the charging of interest), they developed economies that function seamlessly within the mechanics of global capitalism.

Still, giving to the poor is the heart of Islam. Muhammad was an orphan raised by his uncle and the Qur’an and hadith are full of exhortations to be kind to the widow, the orphan, the traveler in need, and the poor and oppressed in general. In addition, one out of Islam’s five pillars is zakat, the command to spend 2.5% of one’s net worth annually to help the indigent. It plays out in a variety of ways in Muslim societies and is not always applied literally, to be sure; yet there’s no denying this theme of compassion permeates Islamic spirituality and practice.

Ever since the Prophet ruled in Medina (622-632) as prophet and statesman, Muslims have believed that somehow piety had both a personal and communal – even political – dimension. So giving handouts to the poor was not sufficient. A just ruler had to make sure that the laws were fair and did not penalize the poor in any way. Likewise, the court system had to rule out injustice and corruption, so that both poor and rich could find justice.

Zakat has given rise to a multitude of private charities throughout the Muslim world, while at the same time Muslims expect a “godly” government to root out injustice and level the playing field in order for people of all social classes to earn a living with dignity. Social justice and compassion for the poor are key values in Islam – a fact that explains why many Muslims find the extreme economic inequalities within and between Muslim countries absolutely appalling.

Yet charity doesn’t stop with zakat for Muslims. The Qur’an enjoins them to give freewill offerings as well, or sadaqa – a word any student of Hebrew would recognize. In the second sura we read a thought similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you make public your free gifts, it is well. But if you conceal them and deliver them to the poor, that would be best for you, and will atone for some of your ill deeds. And God is well acquainted with all you do” (v. 271). In Jesus’ words, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mat. 6:3).

 Finally, the ban on usury in the Qur’an, parallel to the one in the Law of Moses, is a structural mechanism designed to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor. Trade is an economic setup wherein investor and borrower share the risks of the venture. If the commercial deal succeeds, then both make a profit. If it fails, both share in the loss. By contrast, when a bank lends money to an entrepreneur with interest, any loss incurred will be borne solely by the borrower. As the Qur’an states,


“Those who gorge themselves on usury behave as one whom Satan has confounded with his touch. They say: ‘Buying and selling is but a kind of usury.’ But God has permitted trade and forbidden usury … God has blighted usury and blessed free giving with manifold increase. God loves not the impious lawbreaker” (Q. 2:275-276).


Ziauddin Sardar, whose book on the Qur’an I have examined in a blog recently (“God Consciousness and a Better World”), sees the recent economic meltdown in that light:


“We live in a time beset by the consequences of economic disasters. As we contemplate the results of subprime mortgages; the escalation in house prices which keeps increasing numbers of even moderately affluent people off the housing ladder; our economy fueled by an increasing debt burden on everyone; derivative trading that seeks to make money out of mis-selling to the poorest; increasing disparities between the pay of private employers and even the top management of public bodies as against the rest of the workforce; the billions paid in bonuses to those who manipulate the stock market to make money from money; there is pertinent cause for thought in this passage. Untrammeled consumerism has brought us a world of stark contrasts as well as an increasing gap between rich and poor. I see this passage as speaking directly to contemporary concerns” (Reading the Qur’an, p. 196).


A Judeo-Christian approach to poverty reduction

Many scholars believe that when Jesus at the outset of his ministry and in his hometown synagogue read from the Isaiah scroll, he was referring to the Year of Jubilee. Here’s the text from Luke 4:19-20:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Besides the obvious reference to the poor as the main recipients of his ministry, as exemplified in his works of healing and exorcism, there is a wider context that only comes into focus with the last phrase, “the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” That’s the “Year of Jubilee” language.

The Jubilee came every fifty years, but it was part of a rhythm of work and rest – observing the seventh day as the Sabbath. Then, every seventh year (“Sabbath year”) all agricultural lands were to be left fallow and debts forgiven. Finally, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years came the Year of Jubilee, during which not only were people to let the land rest; they were to forgive all debts once again and this time each property reverted to its original owner. Capital could not accumulate, nor could any kind of monopoly develop.

Leviticus 25, the major passage explaining the Jubilee, speaks of political and economic structural safeguards put into place so that wealth is fairly distributed among the people of Israel. Though it was rarely followed to the letter, this ideal of a righteous society tied to the redemption of the severely indebted and to the flourishing of the “least of these” (Mat. 25:40, 45) left its mark on both Jewish and Christian spirituality over the centuries. In fact, it was at the heart of American independence (Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, “Let Freedom Ring!”), the Civil Rights Movement, and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, initiated in the UK, that successfully put pressure on the World Bank and IMF to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

From the core of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, alleviating poverty is a holistic enterprise. Beyond the commands to give generously to the poor we find clear indications how we humans, as God’s trustees on earth, are called to organize our respective societies so that all members can flourish according to their own gifts and abilities. Some will naturally be richer than others; at the same time, the rich will be kept from beating down those weaker than themselves.

Examples of courageous faith-based initiatives to free people of various bonds and impediments continue to inspire, like the committed Christians who helped abolish slavery in nineteenth-century England. Today a plethora of Muslim and Christian relief and development agencies dot the globe delivering aid with compassion. What is more, people of faith are joining other more secular elements of civil society in many contexts to lobby for more justice for the poor and oppressed. That story in more detail is still to follow.

Last week I happened to see Newsweek’s cover article, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” and read it immediately. My reaction: like Ayaan Hirsi’s other writings, it is less than truthful. Most cited facts are indeed “facts.” But truth, surely, lies in a balanced telling of such life-and-death stories within their wider context. She does not.

Truth is, weaving a tale of Muslim rage with Christian victims piling up from Nigeria to Indonesia conveniently adds to the political strife of a US election year. When Democrats decry the plight of beleaguered Muslims, Republican hopefuls vie for the harshest invectives against Islamic radicalism. As it turns out, Hirsi Ali works for that great bastion of conservatism, the American Enterprise Institute.

When her bestseller “Infidel” came out in 2007, the Economist (clearly right of center) opined that for a woman who certainly “fascinates,” “the Dutch-Somali politician, who has lived under armed guard ever since a fatwa was issued against her in 2004, is a chameleon of a woman … Even the title of her new autobiography reflects her talent for reinvention." That is because it had first been published in the Netherlands as “My Freedom?” and that version was more focused on defending women’s rights. The new version is mostly about leaving behind the faith of her fathers.

OK, so just because her truth-telling record isn’t spotless and she has motives for painting Islam and Muslims in the darkest possible terms, don’t the facts speak for themselves in this case? Yes, and no. My short answer is in three parts:

… she is pointing to a real problem that Muslim leaders need to address more than they have up to now;

… the growing attacks on Christian minorities by Muslims is a much more complicated issue than she makes it out to be;

… the tone and word choice, and Newsweek’s publishing it (on the cover, no less!), are all sensational and likely to fan even more the flames of fear and rancor.

Now for the long answer.


Widen your camera’s scope!

Hirsi Ali is right about one important fact. Christians in many Muslim-majority countries today live in fear. That is a deplorable situation that indeed needs to be discussed at the highest levels – but not in these terms. I’ll come back to her “war” discourse, but let me say here that the causes are multiple and that they vary from setting to setting. Let me add too, for the record, that this is not the case everywhere.

Nigeria’s poisonous brew of postcolonial woes

She starts with Nigeria and all the dastardly attacks by Boko Haram she mentions did take place. This is a home-grown jihadi organization that recently has linked up with al-Qaeda, according to their spokesman, Abu Qaqa, in a recent interview. Indeed, their goal is nothing short of bringing the government to its knees and replacing it with one that follows “the dictates of Allah.” But Nigeria’s tensions between its Muslim north, Christian south, and minorities in either place, have roots in the distant past.

Part of the problem comes from the vast oil reserves that are all located in the southern delta of the Niger River. Compare this to Iraq, where the oil wells are either in the north with the Kurds, or south among the Shia, but none in the Sunni middle. In both countries, oil creates bitter strife and contention.

Another factor is that the dominant tribe to the north, the nomadic Fulanis, who are still spread over several nations, used to be the dominant force in the region, mounting numerous raids to the south to grow their slave population. This was not about religion, but mostly about power and economic interests. Since the south is more developed economically, many families and clans from the Muslim tribes in the north have moved south over time.

In the central city of mwo4m, for instance, where up to last year most of the sectarian violence was located, the violence is reminiscent of the tensions between farmers and cowboys in the classic musical “Oklahoma.” The Christian farmers have resented the northern intruders and have often barred them from voting. Feeling disenfranchised, the Muslims resort to violence and the cycle feeds itself. So far, the number of victims has been fairly even on both sides.

This June I go back to Nigeria for a third two-week intensive course in a large seminary in Lagos. Some of the pastors I teach about Islam, apologetics and peacebuilding are in the north. And I’m sure the stories I’ll hear this year will be worse than ever. If anything, the rapid rise of Boko Haram could not have been possible without tacit support from at least some parts of the population. Clearly, Christian minorities in the north and Muslim minorities in the south tremble at the thought of an all-out civil war. Not surprising, after the recent spate of church bombings since Christmas, the highest profile Christian leader announced that this was a declaration of war and that Christians had the right to defend themselves wherever and whenever they could.

Yet, like the protracted war in Ireland pitting Catholics against Protestants, the Muslim-Christian struggles in Nigeria are less about religion than they are a mix of postcolonial woes and real-life issues of power disparities and injustice in a context where governance has long been characterized by corruption and incompetence. Enter Boko Haram (“Western Education is forbidden”) … This jihadi-salafi ideology (see my blog on this), without a doubt, is pouring oil onto the fire. Still, none of this bears out Hirsi Ali’s allegation of “a global Muslim war on Christians.”

In fact, the maverick mufti from Qatar and the religious rock star of al-Jazeera with a devoted global following of several hundred million, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has issued a fatwa condemning the violence on both sides and calling on the Nigerian government “to provide security and safety for all people in order to prevent strife among religious groups.” In the same statement he and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which he heads, denounce the heinous acts of Boco Haram which are responsible for killing 150 people since Christmas 2011, "Muslims, Christians and policemen." Some Muslim leaders are speaking out; and they rightly point out that the victims are both Muslim and Christian.

Sudan’s troubled history

Hirsi Ali then moves on to Sudan. Admittedly, after the 1989 coup by which General Omar al-Bashir took over, the war with the mostly Christian south only intensified. What is more, under the strict Islamist ideology of Hasan al-Turabi, life became nearly intolerable for the Christians in the north. Easily two million people died in this 22-year war; yet skirmishes continue in border regions, despite the 2005 peace treaty and the January 2011 referendum that sealed the south’s independence. Meanwhile, another million or so people died in the brutal attacks in Darfur – once again, nomads against farmers, but all Muslims this time.

So let’s be fair: these are all common symptoms of postcolonial chaos and growing pains, especially in Africa. The mayhem is indicative of a civil war with both parties fighting. Still, responsibility lies mostly with the north – it’s for good reason that al-Bashir stands indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Egypt’s revolution and bumpy road ahead

Are Christians in Egypt and Iraq afraid these days? Yes, they are. But again, reasons differ. Having lived three years in Egypt in the 1990s, I can tell you that Christians have complained of discrimination and harassment from time immemorial. Sadly typical, a recent rampage against Christians in a mostly Muslim village resulted in eight Christian families expelled from the village, by decision of the local authorities. The victims were punished. In a positive development, members of parliament in Cairo stepped in to bring back five of those families. Still, a long history of prejudice and discrimination won’t go away over night.

Add to this the euphoria and chaos unleashed by the January 25 Revolution. For many Egyptian Christians, annoyance gave rise to fear. In the uncertain transition from a dictatorial government to one firmly in the grip of a military junta, which is only reluctantly ceding power to an elected parliament – whose overwhelming majority is one brand of islamism or another – any minority is going to feel vulnerable. Add to that attacks on churches with dozens killed, and even the tragic incident of the army deliberately killing peaceful Christian protesters in early October (for a larger context, see my blog on this). I never read Hirsi Ali’s figure of 200,000 Copts fleeing their homes, but I’m sure more Egyptian Christians than before are trying to emigrate.

Nevertheless, many Egyptian Christian leaders remain optimistic, figuring that while the road to democracy is bound to be treacherous, it will open up better opportunities in the long run. They have ruled out the idea of a “Christian” political party, banking on more fruitful alliances with the dominant Justice and Freedom party and its coalition partners – that do not include the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party.

Iraq, a wounded nation “pacified” by force

Iraqi Christians, by contrast, are not so upbeat. Hirsi Ali correctly notes that half of the mostly Assyrian Christians of Iraq have fled the country since the US invasion of 2003. What she leaves out of her “story telling” is that this is mostly due to the American military occupation and the violence it has spawned in Iraq. Though Sunni-Shii tensions are longstanding, Muslim-Christian ones, unlike Egypt, are not. Christians since 2003 have been perceived as somehow collaborators and thus scapegoats for the violence perpetrated by a “Christian” nation on them. Apparently, you can’t impose democracy on a nation by force – and especially one where ethnic and sectarian tensions run deep, ever embittered by the uneven distribution of oil wealth.

Pakistan and Afghanistan: a cauldron of acrimony and violence

Hirsi Ali mentions a growing number of attacks against Christians in Indonesia, and again, a lot more could be said about ethnic tensions, political grievances, and the like. She rightly calls Saudi Arabia’s handling of religious minorities “totalitarian restrictions.” But I would like to comment on Pakistan, which I see as perhaps her strongest case. Indeed, since at least the 1980s, there has been a hardening of Islamic traditional norms, and the military, in its bid to control the political elites, has only made the political opposition harden its islamist rhetoric.

Yet by far the biggest factor for Islamic radicalization in Pakistan has been the war in Afghanistan. Its government turned to Islamic symbols to counter foreign imperialism, first in supporting the CIA-backed mujahiddeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, then in their alliance with the Pashtun-led Taliban state in the 1990s. Hence, the genie was let out of the bottle, so that with the Nato-led coalition invasion of 2001, years of bitter fighting, scores of civilian casualties, and now following regular drone attacks on Pakistani soil, anti-American resentment has reached a boiling point in Pakistan. This kind of resentment only produces more venom against the already beleaguered Christian minority (about 1%).

Having said that, some clear-cut human rights violations are practically written in the law of the land. When religious positions harden in Muslim contexts, minorities suffer. The medieval law of apostasy, still on the books in a religious sense, comes into force and its corollary, the law of apostasy is, as Hirsi Ali writes, “routinely used by criminals and intolerant Pakistani Muslims to bully religious minorities.” And yes, two high profile politicians, including Punjab’s former governor Salman Taseer and the most influential Christian lawmaker, the Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, were both gunned down in January and March of 2011. Both had campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy laws (for more on apostasy, see my blog).

Hirsi Ali mentions the attack on the World Vision compound in 2010, in which six people were killed and four wounded, and connects this to the blasphemy laws that make confessing one’s belief in the Trinity a crime. Indeed, this was a brazen act, and considering World Vision is extremely careful to avoid any action that even looks like proselytism, one can only conclude that even the presence of foreign Christians is intolerable to some Muslims.

What about Afghanistan? Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, one of several evangelical organizations that specialize in helping persecuted Christians around the world recently wrote a piece entitled, “Will There Be a Place for Christians in Muslim-Majority ‘Arab Spring’ Countries?” Though I don’t necessarily agree with all that he writes (I would be more upbeat about Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia, for instance), I stand by his analysis of the situation in Afghanistan – though I have to wonder why it’s included (it’s obviously not an Arab country!). In 2010, the last standing church structure was bulldozed and the traditional apostasy law is routinely enforced. Afghans by law must be Muslim. He mentions a recent State Department report informing us that “Afghanistan’s media law prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam.”

Every year the Open Doors World Watch List ranks the fifty countries where Christians are most persecuted. In the 2012 version, 39 were Muslim-majority countries. North Korea has been at the top of the list for decades, but Afghanistan moved up to second place, just ahead of Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran and the Maldives. Pakistan was listed at number ten.


Hirsi Ali’s “War on Christians” Discourse

By now you are probably saying, “isn’t this exactly what Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in ‘The War on Christians’”? As I answered in the beginning, “yes and no.” Many of the facts are correct, but the context is missing. With a wider angle camera focused on each of the countries mentioned here, I hope that it’s clear that there is no “war” declared by Muslims against Christians on a global scale. Hirsi Ali herself tries to downplay the title of her piece at one point. She writes,

“No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.”

OK, it’s not really a “war” against Christians. So don’t say it. And don’t put it in the title. Maybe it was Newsweek that, anxious like any media outlet to boost its sales, insisted on the title. Certainly the bloodied icon on the cover was meant to add to the sensationalism and elicit emotion – should I say shock and outrage?

There is another motive in Hirsi Ali’s piece. See for yourself:

“Over the past decade, these [the OIC and CAIR] and similar groups have been remarkably successful in persuading leading public figures and journalists in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement called ‘Islamophobia’—a term that is meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia.”

So this is it: she’s setting out to counter what she perceives as a smear campaign on the part of some Muslim organizations – a campaign that has been remarkably successful. Hence, she fights back. Her objective in this article is to pit the annoying but rather “minor” discrimination that Muslims face in the West against the outright persecution and killing of hundreds of Christians every year in Muslim countries.

To make this contrast really work, she coins an equivalent word, even though she has deridingly characterized Islamophobia “as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement … meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia.” Never mind, “Christophobia” will do just fine.

This is political wrangling, and it is much more than just sparring about words. In the academic disciplines of the human sciences (from literary criticism to philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology) we call this mounting an oppositional “discourse.” More than simply language, creating a discourse is to construct a series of arguments from a particular perspective (we all have one – total objectivity is impossible). But it’s more than just words and arguments. Tone is crucial too.

On the one hand, Hirsi Ali’s piece is considerably toned down, compared to writings by Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabrielle, or Daniel Pipes. On the other hand, she deftly builds her case by piling the most egregious acts against Christians one on top of the other and then saying, “[i]t should be clear from this catalog of atrocities that anti-Christian violence is a major and underreported problem.” This, combined with a contemptuous dismissal of Muslims’ complaints about “Islamophobia,” allows her to build up to her conclusion:

“Instead of falling for overblown tales of Western Islamophobia, let’s take a real stand against the Christophobia infecting the Muslim world. Tolerance is for everyone—except the intolerant.”

Here “Christophobia” is a virulent infectious disease that must be denounced. And then the eminently reasonable word – a darling of liberals, but which conservatives cannot dismiss either – “tolerance.” Contrast her tone to that of a recent Economist article on the same topic, or, better yet, the masterful work of scholar, clergyman and longtime resident in Lebanon and Egypt, Colin Chapman ("Christians in the Middle East: Past, Present and Future").

Notice too the use of “tale”: for her, “tales of Islamophobia” are all about exaggerated storytelling to make people sorry for Muslims. But the shoe fits on her foot too: her article is about telling a tale of woes suffered by Christians in Muslim lands. Is the litany of suffering on the Christophobia side of the ledger so many times worse than that on the Islamophobia side? Yes, in the sense that many basic human rights are denied to non-Muslims in Muslim-majority contexts and that there is much loss of life. No, in the sense that the suffering is caused by many more factors than intentional persecution. Other minorities are oppressed too. Besides, Muslims suffer as well from the lack of freedom of expression and conscience. In fact, if you count numbers of casualties, Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremist violence.

To sum up, Christians do suffer in some Muslim countries. Some of it is outright persecution. Yet most of this hardship is due to a brutal convergence of factors that affect many Muslim societies as a whole: authoritarian regimes (thanks to the “Arab Spring,” that is beginning to change); economic woes made worse by corrupt governance; a groundswell of puritanical and intolerant religiosity; and an angry reaction to western military and political interference.

Hirsi Ali’s tale of Christophobia told in this way is inflammatory. While raising an issue that deserves careful consideration on a global scale, the tone and tenor of her article will likely short-circuit needed negotiations.


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