If a terrorist claiming he was inspired by his Christian faith killed worshipers at a church in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, would anyone suggest that he was a true Christian or represented the beliefs of other Christians worldwide? Of course not. Such a man would be denounced by Christians everywhere, along with whatever twisted organization he represented.
This is, of course, precisely what has happened throughout the Muslim world, among Sunni and Shia, following ISIS’ attack on Medina, Saudi Arabia this weekend. It is hard to overstate how symbolically devastating the Medina bombing is to Muslims, and how clearly it should demonstrate to all people that the so-called "Islamic State" does not follow Islam in any meaningful way. After all, Medina is second only to Mecca in its importance to Muslims worldwide — it is the site of the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed. As one woman tweeted, "Every terror attack is horrific and heartbreaking, but an attack on #Medina is an attack on the soul of the Muslim world." Sadly, Medina has not been ISIS’ only target as of late.
Over the past few weeks, during the month of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Muslims worldwide, terrorists believed to be members of or aligned with ISIS have carried out a series of deadly attacks in Muslim-majority countries, killing and wounding hundreds. Some of the bloodier attacks during Ramadan this year include more than 200 killed by a truck bomb in a crowded Baghdad market; 44 killed at an airport in Istanbul, Turkey; and 23 killed in a siege of a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Just as Christians would denounce an attack on a Bethlehem church, so Muslims — Sunni and Shia — have denounced the attack on Medina. Johnathan A.C. Brown, a professor of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University, explains the near-universality of the condemnation of ISIS: "Every Muslim scholar I know of, except for one or two Muslim scholars who work for ISIS, considers ISIS either to be extremist heretics or to be apostates — so they're not Muslims. It's probably one of the single biggest questions, articles of agreements, amongst Muslims today." Think about this statement for a moment. If Muslim experts around the world agree not only that ISIS does not represent true Islam, but that its members should not even be thought of as Muslims, then why do so many in the West rush to associate ISIS with Islam?
When the nominee of a major political party is openly calling for a ban on Muslim immigration into the U.S., it shows a fundamental and dangerous misunderstanding of who our enemies are. Even worse is the fact that so many Americans agree with the proposed ban, with some polls suggesting that nearly half of U.S. citizens would back such a ban, along with similar numbers in favor of increased law enforcement monitoring of Muslim neighborhoods. Make no mistake: these proposals run completely counter to the founding values of this country and are unconstitutional on their face. But the lack of understanding of Islam and lack of empathy for the Muslim community is causing far too many of our fellow citizens to lose sight of the values our society has long held dear.
Islamophobic reactions to ISIS violence by American political candidates and ordinary citizens alike are completely counterproductive, and only serve to amplify the suffering and fear that Muslims in America are already feeling as they see innocent men, women, and children slaughtered by ISIS heretics all over the world, from Orlando and San Bernardino to Baghdad and Medina. Since the formation of ISIS, it has always been Muslims themselves who have paid the greatest cost in lives taken and suffering endured — a fact that we would do well to remember as we witness the horrific acts of violence committed in Muslim countries during Islam's holiest month.
Fear, distrust, and even hatred of Muslims takes many forms and gains traction in a number of ways, but it is critically important to understand that stoking Islamophobia in Western countries is exactly what ISIS is trying to do. So it is a tragic irony that both peddlers of Islamophobia and ISIS are guilty of perpetuating a distorted, extreme view of what Islam teaches and what most Muslims believe. Both seek to convince the world that many Muslims in the U.S. and around the world either share or should share ISIS' heretical views. In this way, purveyors of strident hate speech against Muslims and those that embrace violent extremism in the name of Islam actually benefit from each other’s existence and actions — and each needs the other in order to thrive.
I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between Islamophobes and ISIS — the latter are actually killing innocent people on a daily basis, and need to be defeated for the safety of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and many others all over the world. But I am suggesting a twisted, tragic symbiosis between the two.
One of the most important steps we all can take towards defeating the nihilistic ideology of ISIS is to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and refuse to give in to fear, hate, and stereotyping. As human beings created in the image of God, our Muslim neighbors deserve our love and support, as Jesus indeed commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In the past, in circumstances where Muslims have been demonized and attacked, Sojourners has responded with a simple message rooted in our faith: “Love your Muslim neighbors.” This is another such time, where our Muslim brothers and sisters need to know that we love them, and that we are all in this struggle against hatred, violence, and fear together.