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Rejecting Muslim Stereotyping, Focusing on God’s Mission

May 2016 was the centennial anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France.

Following secret negotiations in 1916, Britain and France agreed on the new borders of the Middle East as they predicted the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I (1914-18).

A third minor party to the agreement was the Tsarist government of Russia. But following the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of the Tsarist era, Russia would fall out of the agreement and the Bolsheviks would make the agreement public on Nov. 23, 1917.

This provoked what Peter Mansfield described in a 1973 article in The British Empire Magazine as “embarrassment” to the British, “dismay” to the Arabs and “delight” to the Turks (pun intended!).

In the summer of 2014, the group calling itself the Islamic State went on a rampage, conquering and massacring Christians, Yazidis, Shiites and any Sunnis who disagreed with its program.

Strikingly, they started off with the supremely symbolic act of tearing down the international border demarcation between Iraq and Syria, which had resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

The challenge to the post-colonial order imposed by Western nations on the Middle East region had been launched.

Meanwhile, more than 20 years ago, political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1992 proposed the notion of a “clash of civilizations” as a key to understanding the nature of global conflict in a post-Cold War era.

It became popular to think of Islam as the single most significant divisive agent in today’s world.

In much of the popular mind, the world is now divided between the Muslims and “the rest.” Christians of the East are an oppressed “minority” that needs rescuing by the rest in “the West.” And Muslims are largely on a grand mission to conquer the world.

Has ISIS’ behavior confirmed Huntington’s vision of the world or challenged it? How do we understand militant jihadism within the grander scheme of the Islamist and Salafist ideologies of the 20th century? What does a 21st-century perspective on the Middle East and global developments tell us?

I would argue that 20th-century post-colonial realities represented jihadi Salafism’s “raison d’être” and attractiveness in the last century as well as at the turn of the 21st century.

The biggest draw of ISIS on young people is its rebellious stance toward the dominant order imposed by world powers.

For the disillusioned young people living under post-colonial, paternalistic, corrupt, yet largely Western-supported regimes in the Arab and Muslim world, affiliating with a movement that dares to challenge the dominant order under the victorious black banners of ISIS is an extremely defiant and invigorating act.

Meanwhile, French sociologist Olivier Roy reveals through comprehensive research into ISIS’ recruitment draw in Europe that the thrill of affiliation to ISIS is more to do with the disaffection of young Europeans who are part of second- or third-generation migrant communities living in ghettoized societies as well as young Millennial and iGeneration converts attracted to the service of revolutionary hordes with no apparent moral boundaries, than anything to do with commitment and loyalty to Islamic theology.

As Roy puts it, ISIS recruits have a fascination for the narrative of “a small brotherhood of super-heroes who avenge the Muslim Ummah.”

Rather than a confirmation of the Huntington thesis, I would argue that ISIS’ very existence forecasts new, deep and comprehensive developments even within Islam in the near and longer-term future.

I plan to present this perspective in a November 2016 lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, challenging popular notions that draw brash generalizations about Islam.

I will argue that the world is mostly populated with ordinary people who simply want to live their lives and provide a decent future for their children.

This category of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Yazidis and holders of no particular faith effectively represent the “silent majority,” which the “Clash” theory tends to brush off as of no significance to world tensions and conflicts.

Yet the recent uprisings in the Arab World seem to have inaugurated a new role for this grass-roots group, to a large extent as a result of globalization and the rise of the social media.

Searching for the Islamic roots of ISIS in the Quran and Islamic traditions may yield some interesting results for scholars of world religions.

And their work may be useful in the long run, as scholars of different faiths engage in conversation about theology and its impact on politics.

But the more important question from the perspective of the sociology of religions is the reverse: How are current events and manifestations of contemporary Islam, together with the reactions to it among adherents of other religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism, going to affect Islam and other religions in the longer run?

Scholars who study the phenomenon of religion are more interested in defining religion based on the behavior of its adherents than on the basis of some grand theological themes that are supposed to be the driving force of people of faith.

The “world religions” approach has a tendency to view people of faith as prisoners of theological systems, whose every move can be predicted by their communities’ sacred Scriptures.

Whereas the “sociology of religions” approach offers a dynamic vision of mutually influential forces between theology and the practice of religion.

I would argue that the latter vision offers us a far richer field of inquiry, engagement and action than the former.

From a missional perspective, therefore, it is far more useful, far more empowering and energizing. It invites us to new possibilities in terms of creative and constructive action required for the mission of God.

What does mission look like when the church globally ceases from aligning with monochromatic political visions of the world? How do we take the focus away from stereotyping driven by fear, and back to God’s hopeful mission to individual human beings in all their diversity?

Can the global church reclaim a missional vision that adopts the perspective of the “silent majority”? What initiatives are needed to transform families, communities, nations and the world through this “silent majority”?

Is Jesus still of any significance when a more “existential,” “low-boundaries” approach to religions is taken? What does a kerygmatic, “supra-religious” approach to mission have to offer our contemporary missiological thinking?

The latter two concepts – kerygmatic and “supra-religious” – are two angles which I intend to use to develop a new framework for a missiological vision in the 21st century.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A longer version of this article was first published on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Global Reflections blog in preparation for Fuller’s 2016 Missiology Lectures on Nov. 3-4, 2016, as well as the IMES blog. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.