President Obama held a roundtable with a hundred students in Istanbul, Turkey on April 7. He discussed a variety of topics, including the relationship between America and the Muslim world. (White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)
When President Barack Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament last Monday, stating clearly that the United States was not at war against Islam, I was in Oklahoma preparing to interview for a documentary Baptists and Muslims who have found common ground for the common good.
One platform was highly visible; the other was invisible. The former is being widely attacked by the anti-Islamic community of Christian fundamentalists and political right-wingers. The latter will surprise viewers about the many partnerships between Muslims and Baptists—adherents to faiths with different books but a common word about love for neighbor.
From our interviews and my engagement with the Muslims, I commend Obama. He said the right thing.
“The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he said. “In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.”
Even more importantly, Obama added: “I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Speaking in a secular democracy where 98 percent of the citizens belong to the Islamic faith, Obama should have at least advocated for the American approach to the separation of church and state. That approach is surely superior to the Turkish approach, in which the government takes great effort to suppress many religious expressions of the Muslim faith.
That quibble aside, Obama said rightly that the American war on terrorism is not a religious war. While President George Bush made similar points, his message was always muddled by being enmeshed with Christian fundamentalist leaders who wanted a war on Islam—if not a killing war, at least a cultural war.
“If the United States is to be understood as a Christian nation in the same sense that most nations in the Islamic world consider themselves to be Muslim nations, then America is at war with Islam,” said a Baptist fundamentalist seminary president about Obama’s statement, who shared his fears about Islam’s “civilizational ambition.”
He accused Obama of failing “to be honest in clarifying that we do face a great civilizational challenge in Islam. Islam is, in effect, the single most vital competitor to Western ideals of civilization on the world scene. The logic of Islam is to bring every square inch of this planet under submission to the rule of the Qur'an.”
Another critic, a Wall Street Journal columnist, attacked Obama’s commitment to respect with the claim that Islam does not respect Christianity. “The ‘respect’ Mr. Obama promised to give Islam is going only in one direction. And he knows that,” charged the columnist.
The master of demagoguery, Rush Limbaugh, charged that Obama’s positive statements about Islam encouraged Somali pirates to hijack an American ship.
Others launched bitter diatribes, accusing Obama of not understanding that Islam has always been the aggressor against Christianity and has made no positive contribution to global culture.
The clash of civilizations is a powerful narrative through which many define the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and frankly, justify the war in Iraq.
But the clash of civilizations is not a truthful narrative or the only one through which to define two faiths from the tradition of Abraham.
Some goodwill Baptists see and seek another way. They believe that Baptists and Muslims do not need to agree theologically to understand that they share a common word that compels them to advance the common good, since both the Bible and the Qur’an stress love for neighbor as a moral imperative.
Our Muslim interviewees in Oklahoma noted Islam’s sacred teaching about “no compulsion in religion” and tied it to the manifestation of love for neighbor. One noted that the first gift to the victims’ fund after the Oklahoma City bombing came from Muslims—the very people who were first accused of the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.
Our Oklahoma Baptist interviewees told about taking a Muslim on a mission trip to Africa to distribute mosquito nets designed to protect the poor from malaria. One interviewee said that mosquitoes don’t discriminate between Muslims and Baptists. Mosquitoes were equal opportunity infectors, which necessitated people of faith working together to redress the leading disease-killer in Africa.
Obama is attempting to create a new political narrative about the relationship between Christianity, the world’s largest faith, and Islam, the world’s second-largest faith. We are working on a documentary that will show that a new religious narrative already exists, albeit fragmented, localized and mostly unrecognized.
Good stories are needed to replace the negative stories—which some thump relentlessly—if Muslims and Christians are to be at peace.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.