Skip to site content

Learning From Our Muslim Neighbors

I remember a conversation in the early 1980s with some high-ranking academicians in Holland. As we were talking about the diversity of cultures, one of my colleagues remarked: “Holland is a country of the coexistence of cultures. We appreciate immigrants because we can learn something from them.”

Then he suddenly turned to one of our fellows and asked: “But do you remember learning anything from the Moroccans, apart from their duner (a gyros-type of sandwich)?” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
What can a person learn from Muslims?
Rumor credits Francois Mitterand with saying that a person may expect to find <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Armenia and Israel as parts of Europe, but never Turkey. One may find the statement odd, but it reflects a common perception.
In reality, the Turks are in Europe. From the beginning of Arab and Ottoman conquest until the present, Islamic communities have always been a part of European life, sometimes as an exotic spice for North and West Europe, or as a dominant culture in the South and East of Europe.
In Germany, for example, at least 10 percent of the country’s population lives in Islamic communities. These communities are visible in almost any corner of Europe, living peacefully among others or violently opposing them.
What then should Europeans learn about, and from, Islam to have a peaceful life with Europe’s growing Muslim population?
First, if one is indeed committed to the Baptist vision of religious liberty and respectful toleration of divergent convictions, one should also be committed to an ongoing conversation.
An example of a fruitful dialogue is the work of two scholars—Mennonite David W. Shenk and Muslim Badru D. Kateregga—recorded in A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. An honest conversation is a powerful and insightful tool for clarifying misunderstandings and paving the way for peaceful coexistence and even personal friendship.
Respect is essential for conversation with Muslims. What convictions do we share? How do we interpret our religious differences which are so often intermingled with cultural differences? Christians have often demonstrated ignorance and disdain for a faithful Muslim witness.
Islam is a diverse religious body, even though this reality does not comply with the vision of the Quran. It has many faces, just as Christianity has. How do we respond to these different faces, some of which seem rather frightening?
Islam is first and foremost a community-binding religion. Can we complement our different understandings of the role and place of community? The Islamic Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes the rights and integrity of communities, whereas the United Nations Declaration protects the rights of individuals.
We also understand gender roles differently. The BBC recently reported on the Muslim Women’s Conference at Cordoba and its dissatisfaction with the Western portrayal of Muslim women’s situation. Granted these observations, how can Christians deal with issues like arranged Muslim marriages in the context of a liberal democracy?
Islam has a fanatic side which employs the Quranic idea of jihad and engages Islamic communities in a violent defense and offense. The extremist vision interprets Islam as a faith functioning properly only if it is politically dominant.
If extremism is one of Islam’s faces, Christians will have to respond to discrimination, hatred and violent Islamic suppression of alternative faith communities, especially when violence is brought into “our territory.” What happens when we react to violence by violence? Do we indeed have nothing better to offer but exclusivist nationalism? Can a local cultural and political autonomy be granted to an Islamic community instead?
We must not interpret Islamic based on this extremist face alone. As Christians, we are forced to acknowledge that if expressions of violent fanaticism are the criteria for dismissing a religious system, Christianity is the first candidate. Awareness of our past misdeeds will safeguard us from always equating the Muslim faith with terrorist acts. Perhaps we should also consider the role the hegemony of the culturally Christian West plays in stimulating the fanatic reaction of some Islamic groups.
And in spite of the threat, are we still open to see the other face of Islam? Islam is peace. If we are better familiar with the Muslim faith, can we remind Muslims (and ourselves) of some of the Quranic statements that the extremists pass by—such as “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)?
It sounds almost like a statement from a Baptist confession of faith, doesn’t it?
Parush Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, CzechRepublic.