Two Baptists – one a Lebanese denominational executive, the other an American religion professor – shared their concerns about the vilification of Muslims by Christians and mapped out ways for constructive engagement between the world's two largest faith groups in a Baptist World Alliance focus group.
Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society in Beirut, was one of two presenters in a BWA workshop titled "Christian and Muslim Siblings: Children of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar."
Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society in Beirut, and Robert Sellers, professor at Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene, Texas, provided EthicsDaily.com with a copy of their papers in advance of their Thursday workshop titled "Christian and Muslim Siblings: Children of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar," held at the BWA's 20th Congress in Honolulu.
"The vilification of Christianity by Muslim extremists in order to justify militant jihad and the need to convert an 'immoral' West to Islam is alive and well," Costa wrote. "In the same way, political and media voices in the West have used long-standing prejudice against Islam in order to paint a vile picture of a religion that is part of an 'axis of evil' and bent on the destruction of a so-called 'free world.'"
He said that "perhaps the saddest thing today is the massive endorsement of this picture in many of our evangelical churches through a total demonization of Islam and Muslim culture. It is even emerging today that we have been seduced by imposters who, since 9/11, have posed as 'specialists' on Islam, not hesitating even to lie about their past and their credentials in order to preach a message of hate against Islam, and promote political bigotry with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Costa cited Ergun Caner, former president of Liberty Baptist Seminary, as an example of the "imposters."
"Based on the Bible's teaching against slander...we cannot accept that wrong information continues to be propagated about Islam and Muslims. Too many self-proclaimed and self-styled 'experts' on Islam have emerged in our circles since September 11, 2001. They have been received and their teaching embraced and idealized in our churches simply because their discourse has been feeding our phobias and they are confirming our suspicions. In other words, they are tickling our ears and captivating our hearts," said Costa.
Sellers also underscored the problem of "stereotyping and blatant misrepresentations of Muslims" that have fostered "a culture of Islamophobia."
"Baptists have clearly responded to Muslims in several ways, not all of them positive. Without a doubt, one way – reacting with fear and stereotyping – is unproductive and patently unkind. Defaming the Prophet Muhammad, speaking ill of Islam or portraying Muslims collectively as if they were all extremist or terrorist individuals is wrong, unloving and deceitful. I trust that none of us wishes to sin against our neighbors by spreading fear and stereotypes," Sellers said.
For the third year in a row, BWA meetings have focused on the relationship between Baptists and Muslims. The first was at the 2008 BWA gathering in Prague, Czech Republic. The second was at the 2009 BWA meeting in Ede, Netherlands. Besides the Costa-Sellers' workshop, a similar workshop under the same title was scheduled on Friday with two different presenters.
Goodwill Baptists have taken a number of pro-active initiatives to advance the common good with Muslims, including the documentary "Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims."
Neither Costa nor Sellers was satisfied with critiquing the Baptist false witness against members of the Islamic faith.
Costa shared that Lebanese Baptists, through the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, hold an annual conference "to increase knowledge about Islam and Muslims in a balanced way among our constituency worldwide."
Through other initiatives, Lebanese Baptists seek "to transform misunderstandings and produce a paradigm shift among evangelicals and Baptists," said Costa.
Admitting that the Palestinian issue was a hot one and arguing that it need not be a political matter, he noted, "It is no secret today that one of the major sources of anger, frustration and even bitterness in the Muslim world is the Palestinian issue... It has erupted into major conflicts globally and can convincingly be shown to be at the root even of the tragedy of September 11, 2001... I believe it is also the key to the resolution of today's most troubling conflicts, from Afghanistan to Iraq."
The Lebanese Baptist leader pointed out: "The Palestinian issue need not divide us on political opinion if we focus primarily on the justice and human rights dimension of the problem. Whatever one's opinion of the political resolution needed in the Israel-Palestine question, there is no doubting that the situation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in refugee camps of neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, is nothing less than a human tragedy and a deadly volcano waiting to erupt."
Costa challenged Baptists to engage in genuine humanitarian work in the Muslim world and not use the humanitarian platform to gain access to Islamic countries for mission work.
Arrogance, especially among evangelicals, causes conflict. What is needed is humility both by Christians and the U.S. government, he said, praising President Obama's Cairo speech as an example of humility that created "a sudden rise in hope" in the Arab streets.
"Humility cannot be faked long without being found out. But if it is genuine and follows up on the talk with action, then it has the power to transform the world," said Costa.
Sellers urged Baptists to develop a new future with their "spiritual siblings."
"[R]elying on Muslim insiders for our information is crucial for our learning" about Islam, said Sellers, who advocated for dialogue with Muslims instead of preaching to them.
Part of the first national American Muslim-Baptist dialogue in January 2009, Sellers called on Baptists to defend the religious liberty of Muslims.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.