christians and muslims

Does Obama Owe Christians An Apology?

Obama in prayer. Image courtesy Stephen C./
Obama in prayer. Image courtesy Stephen C./

I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:

And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.

It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system — including Christian ones — hold out for those who seek to dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.

So I’m confused.


Sharia Hysteria

THE ISLAMOPHOBIC wave, which has been building in America at least since the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, washed up on the shores of pop culture at the end of last year. That’s when the Lowe’s chain of home improvement stores caved to far-right pressure and pulled its commercials from the TLC cable channel reality show All-American Muslim.

The pressure campaign against All-American Muslim was spearheaded by a fringe outfit called the Florida Family Association (FFA), which was able to generate a mass email campaign to advertisers based on a claim that the show “is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.” This, according to the FFA, is because the show depicts Muslim cops and football coaches, but doesn’t show any “honor killings” or Muslims being persecuted for converting to Christianity.

A few things are shameful about this whole flap. One is that it was over such a tedious, mind-numbing reality show. Another is that a one-man band, which is what the Florida Family Association essentially is, could hijack the mass media stage without any questions being raised about its legitimacy until after the damage was done. The episode highlights all the potential dangers of instant “digital democracy” and sort of makes me nostalgic for the days of the pony express.

But the worst thing about the whole affair is that the FFA’s bogus claims about “sharia law” are right in lockstep with the official talking points of the Republican Far Right. In recent months, “sharia law” seems to have taken the place in their discourse that was once occupied by the phrase “homosexual agenda.” Both phrases were concocted to imply an overt conspiratorial threat that simply did not exist, and then lay that threat at the feet of a designated scapegoat group.

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Friends and Neighbors

DO WE HAVE a gaping hole in our commitment to nonviolence and inclusion regarding Muslims in our community? That’s the question that the Chapel Hill Friends Meeting in North Carolina asked several years ago.

As our Muslim-American neighbors became semi-excluded in the media and political arenas, we asked: How do we take the first steps to make contact with Muslim individuals and groups? We became connected to a widening network, accepting invitations and offering them. We moved carefully, respectfully, never wanting to burn bridges, always following up on what we agreed to do.

Our first Muslim-Quaker effort proved to be too ambitious, trying to combine too many youth groups too fast. We learned a few guidelines: Think small and simple. Stay local. Take account of competing participant commitments—the jobs and families of volunteers, the erratic schedules of youth, the organizational imperatives of officials.

We discovered the range of political and religious thinking within the Muslim community. One issue is youth education; as one leader put it, youth group leaders tend to have a traditional Islamic view and be “distrustful of Americans in general.” There was also disagreement over whether to reach out to non-Muslims or to respond publicly to public attacks. These differences seemed to be based on home-culture expectations from their and their imams’ countries of origin. Their various backgrounds also shaped attitudes toward Muslim decision-making and the role of women in their community.

All this helped us tread the fine line between being intrusive and contributing supportive suggestions. Evidence of our success: several requests for private discussions to act as a sounding board on contentious issues within the Muslim community—and a request to use our Meeting house for a Muslim wedding, which we happily allowed.

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A Mason of Peace

Father Nabil Haddad is founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC) in Amman, Jordan. JICRC is an interfaith organization that promotes peace-building based on shared religious values and human rights principles through public events, educational initiatives, and participation in interreligious dialogues, nationally and internationally. Haddad is a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church in Jordan. He was interviewed by phone in June by former Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi.

Sojourners: Tell us about the history of Christianity in Jordan.

Nabil Haddad:  I belong to the Arab Christian community in Jordan, which dates back 2,000 years. Actually, you’ll find evidence of this conversion in Acts 2, when the Arabs were present during the day of Pentecost. Arabs were there!

These Arabs continued to exist in this part of this world and carry a Christian witness between the time of the Roman Empire and the Byzantines. In the seventh century we were the ones who had to coexist with the newly established Arab Islamic state, and this continued until nowadays, when unfortunately the Arab Christian community is emigrating from this part of the world.

Why are Christians emigrating from the Middle East? First of all, for economic reasons and seeking a better life for their children. The other reason is the lack of tranquility, the lack of civility, and the invasion of tourism culture. Also, due to the war we have seen in this part of the world—in Iraq—Arab Christians are finding that their existence here is at risk.

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St. Francis, Pray for Us

Today (Oct. 4) Christians around the world celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the bright lights of the church and one of the most venerated religious figures in history.

The life and witness of Francis is as relevant to the world we live in today as it was 900 years ago. He was one of the first critics of capitalism, one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the church, and one of the classic conscientious objectors to war.

10 Years After 9/11: The Good and the Bad

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C. getting ready to go to Sojourners' office. I was upstairs listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our three-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the north tower. I still remember my first response to Joy, "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.

Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which became far greater than any of us imagined at first. Rather, my first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our country and our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.

9/11: What Have We Learned?

Ten years ago, terrorists hijacked four airplanes over the United States. Two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, a third into the Pentagon, and the fourth was crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. By the latest count, 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims.

A few weeks after that tragedy, more than 4,000 religious leaders of all faiths signed a statement that was printed as an ad in The New York Times. We spoke of the moral response to terrorism: "We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be," the statement said. "We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us."

On this 10th anniversary it is appropriate to ask what we have learned. How have we grown as a country? How have we healed, or how have we, in our hurt, turned around and hurt others? In two critical ways, we have shown that we did not learn the right lessons.

First, we have spent much of the past decade deeply engaged in two wars. Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush began the bombing of Afghanistan, which was followed with U.S. troops. The stated objectives were to capture or kill al Qaeda and to overthrow the Taliban government. Al Qaeda was quickly dispersed, and the Taliban removed from power. Osama bin Laden was, of course, killed this spring, not by the war of occupation but with rigorous intelligence and special forces. Yet more than 100,000 U.S. troops continue to occupy the country.

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Palestinian Nonviolence: Muslims, Not Christians, Are the Leaders

100216_090527-1503-palestineWhenever I give talks on the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian livelihood, the status of nonviolence as a means to resisting the occupation, and how I believe nonviolence is the only way to move forward to resolve the conflict and create a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the first and immediate questions I get from foreign visitors to my office in Bethlehem is, What you said is good, but what about the Muslims? Do they also believe in nonviolence? Do they understand it?" Even if I don't mention religion in my presentation -- and I rarely do -- this question always seems to make its way in our discussions.

Trigger Words

HOW MANY POTENTIALLY helpful conversations get derailed by evoking reactions that have nothing to do with the issue at hand? Whether dealing with personal or cultural issues, we would do well to be aware of how we can unintentionally incite those with whom we want to build relationships.

Some readers may be old enough to remember the comedy duo Abbot and Costello. In one really funny bit, Lou Costello is locked in a jail cell with someone whose personal history evokes surprising explosions. His wife ran off with another man and ended up at Niagara Falls. So every time someone says, “Niagara Falls” the man relives the bad association and attacks the one who said the trigger phrase. “Niagara Falls!” the man shouts, “Slowly I turned, step by step I came to him, and I struck him ...” and at this point the man begins to beat on Costello until he regains his composure. But every time Costello forgets and says “Niagara Falls,” he gets another beating.

We live in a culture where perfectly normal words pull a trigger for misunderstanding and overreaction. In their objective sense, they are merely descriptive. But they have been redefined as terms of threats instead of just nouns or normal parts of reality.

“Socialism” becomes not just an economic system that is different from “capitalism”; it becomes a trigger word that represents a threat or an inaccurate description of any economic aid, and thus it provokes an attack. “Immigration” has become not just a part of our melting-pot history and an integral need for a healthy economy; it has now been turning into a red-flag word that evokes an image of evil outsiders trying to take what is “ours.” And interreligious cooperation (especially with Muslims) for the common good? Watch out!

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July 2011 Sojourners
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