Middle East Resources

The Muslim Challenge to the West

Bassam M. Madany

As of September 11, 2001, our lives have changed in many ways. Not since the early years of the 19th century has the territory of the United States been attacked by foreigners. On that fateful day, Islamist* terrorists “raided” New York City and Washington. They succeeded in disrupting life in America, as well as all over the world. The human and economic toll was staggering. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the media concentrated on the planning and the methods used by the terrorists in their war against America. The federal authorities worked hard to convince the public to resume normal activities. Much as we would like to return to some type of normalcy, several questions still haunt us. How did those terrorists manage to conceal their demonic plot for so long, and then bring it to pass? An equally crucial question must be asked. Is this war simply between the Islamists and the West? Or, are there more parties to the conflict?

Early in 2003, the Homeland Security Department issued new alerts about possible terrorist attacks on Americans overseas and on targets within the USA. These alerts while necessary, do add to a general feeling of anxiety among Americans. How can we be ready to fight an “invisible” enemy that may be lurking somewhere within US borders, or who might sneak into the country from Canada, or Mexico?

While it is important to raise such questions, we must not imagine that our predicament is an isolated one. We are part and parcel of the Western Civilization that has been dominant all over the world for almost 500 years. Now we face an enemy who bases his challenge on a specific interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that justifies his attacks regarding them as the continuation of the age-long conflict between Islam and the Christian West.

However, we must not forget that a fierce battle has been taking place for some time among Muslims themselves. The moderates (those who are willing to coexist and interact with the world outside Islam) have been at war with the Islamists. The latter are utopian Muslims whose vision is to re-create a world Islamic order, an order that existed between 632 AD and 1918 AD, under the Caliphates of the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans.

Over the years, I developed a great interest in the writing of moderate Arab/Muslim intellectuals. My hope was that they would offer an alternative program that would allow the Muslim nations to coexist peacefully with the global technological civilization that will dominate the twenty-first century. Now, in the aftermath of 9/11, I must admit that moderate Muslims have not done their job. I hope to deal with their failure in a future article.

Classical Islam is a religion that encompasses all areas of life. It is basically a faith which acknowledges God as creator and sovereign over all, but denies the event of the Fall as described and explained in the Bible, the historicity of the crucifixion as well as the necessity of redemption. In Islam, salvation takes place under purely revelatory auspices. The attainment of eternal bliss in the paradise of Allah depends on the confession of the shahada, the acknowledgment of the oneness of God and the apostleship of Muhammad coupled with a life of obedience to the demands of the Shari’a Law.

The majority of Muslims today live in the third world; most of them are historically conscious and quite aware of their great and glorious past. Their faith in the rightness of their religion is unshaken. God has entrusted them with His final message to mankind. They have taken it to distant lands and managed to found great empires. They consider their present predicament as transitory, an unfortunate phase that will eventually give way to a revival of their past glories. They do expect the triumph of Islam all over the globe. This belief forms an integral part of their eschatology.

Muslims come from a position of utter certainty about the rightness of their faith. They consider themselves the custodians of God’s final and complete revelation. Thus, they have hardly any reason to seriously consider the claims of a previous and inferior faith. Furthermore, an average Muslim is convinced that he has nothing to gain by converting to Christianity. If he lives within a Muslim country, his conversion will inevitably lead to death. If he has immigrated to a Western land, he sees no specific benefits that would accrue from his adoption of the Christian faith. Western societies present him with a very confusing scene. Their mores are a threat to his family. Back in his homeland, society and the state cooperated with him in the faithful practice of his religion. Over here in the West, no such help is available.

The freedom he sought in this new world of economic opportunity surrounds him at the same time with a devastating type of secularism. He does not understand separation between religion and politics, or “church” and state. His culture is deeply religious and his religion has produced an assertive and self-consciously Islamic culture. Based on his experiences of living and working in the West, he identifies Christianity with Western culture. He regards it as decadent and hurtling towards disintegration. His personal faith and fervor are rekindled. In order to survive within a secular milieu, he must go on the offensive and engage in da’wah, i.e., in Islamic missions. He calls on Westerners to convert to Islam. This would involve both a religious and a political change of mind on the part of his Western converts.

When we think about Christian missions to Muslims in the twenty-first century, we must be fully aware that Muslims themselves are already engaged in a global effort to spread their faith. If we hope to share our faith with Muslims, we must keep in mind that they will be tremendously engaged in a counter offensive, endeavoring to convince Europeans and Americans that Islam can bring order to the chaotic moral and spiritual conditions of Western societies.

In classical Islam, the world is divided into two realms: Daru’l Islam and Daru’l Harb, i.e., the household of Islam and the household of war. Within Islamic countries, the Shari’a Law is supreme and is enforced within society through the arm of the state. Until very recently, the vast majority of Muslims lived almost exclusively within Daru’l Islam. Now that many have migrated to the West, it is very difficult for them to fully practice the requirements of their faith in an environment where the state is neutral vis-à-vis religious matters. Radical Muslims, enjoying the freedoms of our Western pluralistic societies, are working hard to create conditions that would allow the followers of Islam to live as if they were still residing within an Islamic territory. However, such a quest can be realized only where the Shari’a Law is enforced by a theocratic state. Coming from a tradition that considers religion as involving all areas of life, and having witnessed the moral collapse of Western societies, it is quite understandable that Muslims are ready and eager to offer their faith as a remedy to the deplorable spiritual conditions within the host countries. Their boldness stems from their deep conviction that the West is rapidly entering the twilight of its civilization. Only Islam has the answer. As the theme of a Muslim convention which was held in Chicago in December, 1994, put it: Al-Islam li sa’adat al-bashariyya: “Islam is for the happiness of mankind.”

Noted German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has commented on the presence of Muslim minorities in the West:

“If Western freedom in fact means no more than individual license, others do well to try to defend their communities and spiritual values against the encroachment of Western secularism. Beyond the defensive mode, Islamic missions in Western societies express a strong sense of missionary vocation aimed at liberating Western nations from the materialism and immorality associated with secularism. These Muslims view Christians as having failed in the task of the moral transformation and reconstruction of society. Such criticism is a serious challenge to traditional Christianity and to Western culture. A culture devoid of spiritual and moral values is not equipped to meet that challenge, and is bound for disintegration and decay.” (1)

This analysis of a leading European theologian requires our serious reflection. After all, we are not living in the days of William Carey or Samuel Zwemer. Their work was supported by a home front that exhibited a Christian culture. Before World War II, the average Muslim in the Middle East, for example, thought of Americans as being thoroughly honest. He could trust them more than his fellow Muslims. Why? Because all the Americans he knew were either missionaries or educators who exhibited in their life the higher ethic of an authentic Christian faith! Quite often, early United States diplomats in the area were children or grandchildren of pioneer missionaries.

As mentioned earlier, even after living a long time outside Daru’l Islam, Muslims still carry with them their own habits of thought. They do not comprehend the stark reality that Western culture has jettisoned its Christian heritage. Thus, they confuse Christianity with Western culture and regard it as exhibiting an inferior ethic. Therefore, it becomes both their responsibility and opportunity to engage in missions among Westerners. It is also a very telling matter that such activity is not rooted in an organized and official “sending” by a mission agency. The Islamic view of missions is rooted in the concept of da’wah, i.e., calling people to Islamize. It is a spontaneous activity in which he engages as a person who has submitted to God’s final revelation in the Qur’an. His solemn duty is to share his faith by all means, peaceful at times, or through jihad, at other times.

Judith Miller, who was the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times for more than twenty years, makes these solemn predictions:

“There is no shortage of Arab commentaries on the cause of the Muslim malaise. But as Bernard Lewis, the historian, has observed: the writings fall into two groups. While some analysts ask, ‘What did we do wrong?’ others demand to know: ‘Who did this to us?’ While the first question leads to debate about how to set things right, the second leads only to ‘delusions and fantasies and conspiracy theories’ that intensify feelings of resentment, frustration, and victimization as well as ‘an endless, useless succession of bigots and tyrants and to a role in world history aptly symbolized by the suicide bomber.’ Much of the self-critical analysis written by Arabs in Arab countries, alas, falls into the second category.

“How sad it would be if after so much suffering the Arabs embraced yet another ideology [reference here is to Islamic radicalism] that seems only likely to compound the obstacles to regaining the prosperity, dynamism, tolerance, and imagination that once characterized their civilization.”

(2) Given these concerns, how can we as Christians in the West respond to these new challenges? There are at least three areas we can engage in.

Encourage Moderate Muslims

The leaders of the Muslim states should realize that the end of colonialism has brought a new era of global history. No empire can be resurrected from the past. Muslim states, as well as the nations of the West, must recognize that we all live in an age of interdependence. We need one another. We have global problems that require global solutions. We need to address the urgent needs of the Islamic world. They are, the lack of water resources, weak agricultural output, desertification, population explosion (doubling at the rate of every twenty years), and the inadequacy of reliance on one major source of income such as oil.

Encourage the Arab Christian Church

Christians living in the free world ought to be very concerned about the status of Christians in the Muslim world. They must do their utmost to help these brothers and sisters who have been almost completely forgotten. The concerns of Western Christians should not be limited to those subjects that are on the agenda of the secular news media. Members of the various Eastern Christian Churches of the Middle East need our prayers, and our moral support. Every time we confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, we say: “We believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Specifically, this “oneness” of the Church must be translated into genuine interest in the plight of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Christians in southern Sudan.

Behave Christianly

The credibility of Christians, at home within a pluralistic society, and overseas, depends on their distancing themselves from the norms and the lifestyles of the secular societies that surround them. Unless Christians lead lives that are concretely different from the lifestyles of the secularized citizenry, no Muslim will consider seriously what Christianity has to offer. We have so much to learn from the history of the first three hundred years of the Christian era when to be a Christian meant both a marked separation from the corrupt heathen environment and, at the same time, engaging it with the bold Christian testimony: Jesus is Lord.

*Islamist is a new name for the radical Muslims, a name current both in Arabic and in European languages.

(1)  “Christianity and the West: Ambiguous Past, Uncertain Future,” First Things, December 1994.

(2)  God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East. Touchstone Books, 1997.