9/11: A decade of studying Islam
But we've been to two different schools. In a nutshell, one says that Islam is a great religion with awesome accomplishments, now wounded by misfortune and embarrassed by extremists who've perverted its basically wholesome message.
The other says that Islam is a false and dangerous ideology, bad to the bone, flawed from its founding.
The first is led by the likes of Joseph Esposito and Karen Armstrong; the other by Robert Spencer and Mark Durie (and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bat Ye'or, Nonie Darwish and others).
Having "attended" both schools, I'm not convinced the first should be accredited and I'm urging folks to matriculate in the other.
Of course, both schools grant the other a point here and there ("Yes, that's an unfortunate verse in the Quran"; "Yes, the Moorish Alhambra palace in Spain is impressive.")
But the differences are substantial and critical. (And yes, the majority of Muslims aren't aggressive and oppressive, but the majority of Baptists aren't evangelistic or sacrificial in giving. You don't define a faith by the behavior of its slackers or its observants who lack the numbers and power to fully advance their agenda, as is currently the case with Muslims in the West.)
I'm afraid our recent presidents haven't been too helpful in clearing things up. I understand the need for diplomacy, but I wish President Bush hadn't proclaimed amiably but naively that Islam was a "religion of peace" and that President Obama hadn't declared in Cairo that Islam "carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment."
Neither statement will stand up to scrutiny.
While thinking about this column, I stopped by the library at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to do a little research on another writing project, this one concerning the healing serpent artifact in Numbers 21, the one connected to Christ in John 3. I grabbed some commentaries, including the old Interpreter's Bible, where I read, "We do not need to accept this story of the fiery serpents at its face value in order to appreciate the deep spiritual truth which the words of the text suggest." I wanted to say to the liberal denominations (in steep decline for decades), which have drunk from the "deep" waters of this skeptical well, "How's that working out for you?"
And this got me thinking about debacles, including the collapse of financial and housing markets over subprime mortgage derivatives, the billion-dollar payouts over pedophile priests and the reduction to absurdity of European nannyism in the riot-torn streets of Athens. I'm not talking embarrassment, bumps in the road, learning curves, regrouping or doldrums; I'm talking spectacles, debacles and disgrace -- humiliation.
Which brings us back to Islam, where even some of the faithful are pushing the panic button, as in "Malaysia and the Club of Doom: The Collapse of the Islamic Countries" by Syed Akbar Ali. There we read that "all the Islamic countries are well qualified to become failed states" and that "all the 22 members of the Arab League today are basket cases."
Then comes Syed Akbar Ali's litany: "1. America's GDP is five times that of the 57 Muslim countries combined; 2. Only 1% of Arabs have a computer; 3. 57 Muslim countries have a total of fewer than 600 universities while India has 8,407 and the U.S. has 5,758; 4. Over a 105-year period 1.4 billion Muslims have produced eight Nobel Laureates while a mere 14 million Jews have produced 167 Nobel Laureates; 5. 60% of Muslims are illiterate compared to 22% of 'Christendom.'"
It's simply the case that Islam has robbed the Arab, Persian and Aceh/Indonesian people (and many other people groups) of much of their dignity, and 9/11 has highlighted the humiliation, the mother of all debacles.
While communism birthed and destroyed itself in about 80 years, Islam's self-ruination has run for centuries and centuries, even as it has grown, largely through intimidation and suffocation. When you start with an adulterous warrior-prophet, who is literally anti-Christ (though touting a non-biblical version of Jesus); when you mix in generous helpings of totalitarianism and the marginalization/persecution of women and non-Muslims; when you cultivate tribalism, legalism and victimism; then you have a recipe for disaster.
But surely, this is to speak most uncharitably. Doesn't Colossians 4 teach us to be as gracious as we can in our speech toward outsiders, and isn't friendship evangelism admirable, even obligatory? Yes and yes. But the Bible does not make niceness an absolute, and it teaches that it is truth that makes men free.
I've spoken of two schools of thought, but actually there's a third, the school of Thumper, who was pressed to recall his father's instructions in Bambi, "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all." I fear that many of us have studied too long there.
Remember those who were upset with Franklin Graham when he called Islam a "wicked and evil" religion? They murmured that such talk was "provocative" and "counter-productive."
But I would urge them to revisit Mount Carmel, where Elijah felt no need to palliate the prophets of Baal with assurances that their religion was great and that it had made some impressive contributions. And you don't find the apostles and church fathers "building bridges of understanding and cooperation" or "cultivating mutuality" with emperor worship or Gnosticism. You can be civil without being feeble.
So let's save room for plain speaking on these matters, even as that room is locked in Muslim-majority countries. And let's not be cowed by charges of "Islamophobia" when we rehearse the unmatched, bloody record of Muslim terrorist attacks, running from A to Z -- literally -- even in the last two months: Abuja (Nigeria); Beersheba (Israel); Cherchell (Algeria) and Cotabato (Philippines); Dattykh (Ingushetia); Eilat (Israel); Fallujah (Iraq); Gombi (Nigeria); Hyhama (India); Iskandaryah (Iraq); Jamrud (Pakistan); Khasavyurt (Dagestan); Loder (Yemen); Mandera (Kenya); Nazran (Ingushetia); Oruzgan (Afghanistan); Pariang (Sudan) and Pattani (Thailand); Quetta (Pakistan); Ramadi (Iraq); Sar-Kuusta (Somalia) and Samalout (Egypt); Toronto (Canada) and Tunis (Tunisia); Uruzgan (Afghanistan); Vedono (Chechnya); West Nusa Tenggara (Indonesia); Xingjian (China); Yamata (Ghana); Zarqa (Jordan). (And you might check out thereligionofpeace.com for another 300 examples from that same brief time period.)
Such talk may not be your calling or your cup of tea, but it has its place if I read my Bible right.
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the seminary's Nashville extension.