Simplistic solutions to national security and the refugee crisis are available to anyone with a social media account. Most of these “solutions” fall woefully short because they fail to take religion seriously. And there are challenges for all of us—whether we are a Muslim, a secularist, or a Christian—to consider our response to these challenges in light of our own professed religious commitments. I won’t pretend to have the answer, but let me offer three reflections:
Islamic Terrorism? | Much is being made as to whether reporters and politicians dare to use the phrase “Islamic terrorist,” for fear of indiscriminately grouping non-violent and violent Muslims into one category. The violent backlash against Muslims (and, sadly, Sikhs and Hindus) in Ontario has already shown the trouble this can perpetuate. I found the reflections of Muslim apologist Shadi Hamid, in the Washington Post, helpful in this regard. As a (small “l”) liberal Muslim, Hamid points out that external debates as to whether Islam as a whole is a religion of peace or violence misses the point. For some Muslims, the logical expression of their faith is violence. Whether you or I can make sense of the logic is quite beside the point: those who perpetrate the violence believe it to be a logical act. While the western world celebrates diversity, too often our public discourse fails to consider the implications of diversity for public reason. When different people start with different worldviews, logic brings them to very different conclusions regarding the same issue. It isn’t that they are being irrational; it is that they have different starting assumptions.
This is not only true between, but also within, religions. As an orthodox Christian, I can’t understand the logic of those like the adherents of the Westboro Baptist Church who champion “God Hates Fags” and carry out despicable acts of hatred in the name of the religion with which I identify. A gospel without forgiveness that sanctimoniously celebrates hate and judgement is not a Christian gospel I recognize.
But for many, this glib comparison can be made too easily. The Westboro Baptists are a regrettable, yet much less representative, product of western Christianity than ISIS is of Islam. And the consequences, measured in lives taken, not only of those of different faith traditions but also of Muslims, are not at all comparable. We cannot escape the fact that the majority of violent terrorism in the world today is being perpetrated by those who claim adherence to some form of Islam (Of course, it must be pointed out that a significant proportion of those who are being victimized by this terrorism are also adherents to some form of Islam.)
Simplistic reductionist statements that equate all of Islam with violence are neither honest nor a fair assessment of how many of our Muslim neighbours feel, including the many leaders who, to their credit, have spoken out against the violent expression of Islam. We do the debate a disservice by repeating these reductions. Just as Christians of a previous era were challenged to, on the basis of their own Scriptures, explain what their faith meant regarding issues of slavery, today’s adherents of Islam can be challenged both internally and in the context of multi-faith dialogue, to explain their religion’s views regarding the sanctity of human life, religious coercion, and the use of violence.
Secular Myopia? | Ours is an era in which the dominant secular mindset doesn’t know how to make sense of religion. Overcoming some combination of poverty, social isolation, or immigrant integration challenge is presumed to hold the answer to most every problem. Not enough effort is made trying to understand the logic that drives people to behaviours which most of us in the liberal west find despicable. But they forget that the appeal of Islam for many (including an increasing number raised in the secular west) comes precisely because of the emptiness of secularism. For all the “progress” that the “religion of the nones” has made in recent decades, the vast majority of the world’s people (upwards of 80% in most studies) identify as religious. It is irrational to seek to develop solutions to complex political problems without considering the impulse of the human heart to seek meaning and purpose beyond ourselves. As an orthodox Christian, I profoundly disagree with the answers that my Muslim neighbours find. Similarly, I would expect a devout Muslim (and Buddhist as well as those of other missionary religions) to disagree with my understanding of who we are, why we are here, and what the purpose of life might be. Yet, as Southern Baptist pastor Al Mohler pointed out so clearly when speaking at Brigham Young University a few years back, people of faith can dialogue not in spite of our differences, but in light of them. Mohler went so far as to suggest that secular hostility towards religion may result in those who may not believe they are going to heaven together needing be prepared to go to jail together to protect religious liberty.
To be clear, the Paris terrorist attacks are not an issue of religious liberty. They are a violent disregard for human life and political order that needs to be condemned. Full stop, no qualifications. But, in our condemnation of those who, in the name of religion, disregard the sanctity of human life (an idea that has its roots in Judeo-Christian theology) let us not fool ourselves into dismissing the religious mindset that actually believes things (so much so that they are prepared to die for it.) The majority of our fellow human beings alive today on the face of the globe live out of such a conviction. Rather, let us seek to understand and dialogue with those of various religious traditions, recognizing that multi-faith dialogue is hard work and not given to easy solutions, in order to encourage and facilitate a civil co-existence in a pluralist society, even as we out of sincere conviction pray and proselytize for each other’s conversion, and as fellow-citizens commit to non-coercive co-existence and protection of a pluralistic society in which we can live in peace and safety.
Christian Generosity? | The challenge of dealing with the millions of refugees fleeing from the ravages of terrorism is not straight-forward. It is a given that neither relocating refugees to western countries nor taking short-cuts on the real security risks when ISIS has publicly indicated that infiltrating refugee settlements are part of their strategy are complete solutions. But when political and public leaders who profess and identify with Christian motivations for their conduct, suggest that blanket rejections and closing of the borders are an appropriate response to our fellow human beings in need, they need to be challenged whether they are giving appropriate public expression to the dictates of their own religion. Whether it is the Old Testament admonition that Israel should love the sojourner, remembering that they too were displaced from their own land, or the New Testament lesson of the Good Samaritan, the public implications of the Christian faith throughout history was a care and concern for their fellow-human being, whatever differences there might be between them. The reaction not to receive any refugees, regardless of their dire need, is an admission that we are not confident in our ability to love while maintaining disagreement. It is a defensive response seeking to protect what we have, ironically in the very process denying its power. This is not a naïve argument against due process; it is a condemnation of a defensive posture which denies the very impulse of care for our fellow human that ought to define us.
Challenging times require challenging solutions and it is easy to point out what the “other” ought to be doing. In a world where our differences are stark, that is easier than ever before. But maybe the toolkit for finding a solution involves not only binoculars and a magnifying glass, but also a mirror, and in a dialogue that takes into account our deepest held beliefs and behaviours, we might begin to find some solutions to deal with these profound challenges.