This "Introduction to Islam" course I'm taking at the Anglican Church here in Abu Dhabi, UAE got me to thinking about the ways Westerners and Middle Easterners, or Christians, Jews and Muslims, view each other:
- Fear and Suspicion: Since 9/11/11, the first reaction of Westerners to Islam is fear, because images of Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists are what come immediately to mind. The Western news media tends to reinforce this fear by presenting mainly images of violent and intolerant Muslims. Likewise, Middle Eastern media portray Israel as violently aggressive and the United States as the world's only superpower, with a history of blindly enabling and supporting Israel, killing Muslims or supplying arms to those that do.
- Clash of Civilizations and Religious War to Win "the Final Battle" for Supremacy: Some apocalyptic theologies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam conjecture that Western and Middle Eastern civilizations are inevitably in competition and conflict to win the hearts and minds of the earth's population. It is the final battle between good and evil, after which the world will end. Each side takes a war-like stance against other religions, claims they've cornered absolute truth, and recognize nothing good in other faiths. I've written before about how crazy I think these theologies and movements are. While Al Qaeda is widely recognized among Muslims as extremist, the danger of fundamentalist Christians and Jews are less recognized in the West. I've written about the "Danger to Jews of Devout Christians Pushing for Armageddon in Israel." A balanced approach to religious history shows, for example, that Jews often thrived in Muslim societies, while they were discriminated against in Christian societies. It is up to moderate Christians, Jews and Muslims to steer clear of extremists who paint a black and white view of religious history.
- Naivete. We believe in basically the same God, Allah, Jehovah, Y*hw*h, so let's all just get along, hold hands, sing kumbaya, celebrate National Brotherhood Week, and blend together in a spirit of universalism. The truth is that Islam, Christianity and Judaism have significant theological, cultural and historical differences that are not likely to disappear. Sweeping those differences under a rug, pretending they don't exist, will not make them go away.
- Stereotypes. While Western media reinforce the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist male and oppressed female, what's amusing to me is to hear Muslim stereotypes of Westerners. An American Christian male, I was told, is likely to be overweight from eating a lot of fast food. He wears a big cross around his neck, drives a big gas-guzzling SUV and collects guns. He likes beer and wine, speaks too loudly after he has had a few, puts his arm lewdly around a scantily-clad buxom blonde not his wife. He is a rabid supporter of Israel, equates modern Israel with Biblical Israel, is deaf and blind to the plight of Palestinians, waves a big American flag, says he most values "freedom, freedom," and supports wars in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to free them, of course, from Muslim tyranny. But he can't locate any of those countries on a map.
- Relationship and Dialogue. The only antidote to the four less than illuminating approaches to each other is actual dialogue and real relationships.
Here in the UAE, that's not as easy as it might be. Expats overwhelmingly outnumber locals, who represent only about 15 percent of the population. It's easy for expats to live in a cultural bubble, stay in their own compounds and comfort zones, associate mainly with other expats and ignore the elephant in the room -- the fact that we live in a Muslim country.
In this class at the Anglican church, I've had an opportunity to listen to Muslim Emiratis relate their history and experiences. It has been a real eye-opener. One older Emirati related how, prior to 1960, the vast majority of the populace was illiterate. They knew the rituals of Islam but not the theological reasoning behind it. He recalled when the first Christian church was built in Abu Dhabi, it was a curiosity. "Why don't they just go to mosque?" the natives asked each other.
Another Emirati related that when he visited America, he was fascinated by the many different kinds of churches and denominations, diverse styles of worship and radically different interpretations of Christianity. He was asked if he could ever become a Christian. "If I did, my mother would disown me," he said. "I could not do that to her."
His answer reminded me that many of us, whether we realize it or not, are so bound by tradition, language, culture, history and custom, if not day-to-day faith, to the religion of our forefathers or mothers that it's impossible to imagine completely abandoning it for a religion that is culturally unfamiliar to us. Even my most secular friends in America have internalized certain religious traditions, such as the Thanksgiving meal and gift-giving at Christmas, and a Western way of thinking.
Islam generally requires more discipline and structure than Christianity, and fewer compromises with secular society. This leads Muslims to assume that Christians are easily corrupted by worldly desires and hedonistic impulses, putting themselves as individuals above the needs of the family and tribe.
Westerners, on the other hand, often assume that Muslims adhere to a rigid, narrow-minded, ritualistic faith in which individual conscience and free will must take a back seat to the collective "needs" of a close-knit community.
While true in general, these assumptions and stereotypes may or may not be true in the specific case of individuals we meet. The challenge is to stop viewing "the other" through our own cultural lens, or to at least identify the cultural lens or ideology that we are viewing each other through.
Many conservative Muslims and conservative Christians view each other suspiciously because we immediately assume irreconcilable differences in faith and ways of looking at the world, although in my experience traditional Muslims and traditional Christians have similar lifestyles and view the world similarly, placing family and faith above all.
I hope that while I'm here in the UAE I'll have more opportunities to develop relationships and engage in real dialogue and further insights.
Meanwhile, a Muslim-Christian dialogue takes place in Dubai each year. The 2013 "Christian - Muslim Debate" is posted online. There were audio problems at first, so move to "15" to get past them.