Obama's claims on Islam evaluated

In an Oval Office address Dec. 6, President Obama called Muslims to oppose "interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect and human dignity."
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WASHINGTON (BP) -- In an address on a "new phase" in America's war on terror, President Obama said committing acts of violence in the name of Allah represents a perversion of Islam.

Presenting a televised speech from the Oval Office for just the second time in his presidency, according to the Associated Press, Obama called Muslims "to speak out against ... those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect and human dignity." He called all Americans "to reject discrimination" against Muslims.

Evangelical scholars of Islam responded to both points, noting a debate among both Christians and Muslims over the compatibility of Islam and violent jihad, the Muslim term for holy war.

The Dec. 6 address occurred four days after a Muslim husband and wife killed 14 people and wounded 21 during a shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif. The couple, Obama said, "had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West," though there is "no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organization overseas, or that they were part of a broader conspiracy here at home."

Violence & Islam

Obama acknowledged "that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities." Such extremism, he said, "is a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse."

In responding to the speech, Page Brooks, a New Orleans pastor who has taught Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said Obama presented "a viable interpretation" of Islam.

"I would not necessarily characterize mainstream Islam as a religion of peace, but I would not characterize it as a religion of war either," Brooks, pastor of Canal Street Church, told Baptist Press. "...It really does depend upon interpretations of Koranic passages as well as some of the hadith," collections of traditions and sayings attributed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

"Just like you have various Christian groups that are conservative, moderate and liberal that take the Bible and run with various interpretations, you have the same thing happening in Islam," Brooks said. "Mainstream Islam, in my opinion, does not teach a radical interpretation like you see happening with groups such as al Qaeda and ISIL."

Even in the final decade of Muhammad's life, during which he engaged violent campaigns against non-Muslims, he did not carry out "evangelism by the sword," Brooks said, but operated "according to a reasonable code of just war theory that was consistent with the developing Islamic worldview." However, the Muslim just war ethic is "generally inconsistent with biblical principles of love, war and peace."

Brooks admitted his view represents "a minority position among evangelical scholars" and said Muhammad participated in a mass killing of Jews on at least one occasion.

Ayman Ibrahim, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that Muhammad’s violent campaigns should be considered in the debate on Islam.

"The latter 10 years of Muhammad's life were spent mostly in Medina," Ibrahim told BP in written comments, "which served as his headquarters and base of the Believers Community, commonly known as his umma. During these years, we are told in the Biography of Muhammad, he raided various places and fought against the polytheists and pagans of Mecca as well as against Jewish tribes in order to establish his dominion over Arabia."

Muslims debate whether it is possible to interpret the Koran and other important Muslim documents as advocating religious tolerance, as Obama suggested, Ibrahim said.

"It is possible if you develop a hermeneutical device that disconnects the interpretation of today from the possible historical context through which the text was proclaimed," Ibrahim said. For instance, if you take the call for fighting the infidel to represent merely a historical incident that took place in the past in a specific situation within a specific context/time and affirm that that incident does not inform today's circumstances, then you can establish an interpretation that goes in harmony with what the President suggested."

Ibrahim added, "Of course, this kind of interpretation would still be considered 'perverted' by some Muslims who adopt and believe in literal interpretation of sacred texts."

Stopping Muslim discrimination

In addition to denouncing violent interpretations of Islam, Obama said "it is the responsibility of all Americans -- of every faith -- to reject discrimination."

Muslim Americans, the president said, "are our friends and our neighbors, our coworkers, our sports heroes -- and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that."

Ibrahim and Brooks agreed.

"Christians would be unfair if they viewed, treated or considered all Muslims as one monolithic body," Ibrahim said. "This is wrong. While we have to emphasize the problem of terrorism associated with some Islamic doctrines, it would be far from just or honest to treat all Muslims as terrorists. Christians should continue to pray for and love all their Muslim neighbors. This is what Jesus called us to do and to be."

Brooks said stereotyping all Muslims as supporting violence may close doors for evangelism.

"God might want us to be the one that shares Christ with them," Brooks said. "Yet when we put up the stereotypes and discrimination..., that automatically builds a wall between us and them."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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