By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
At a town hall meeting last week Donald Trump was told by a supporter: “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims” and that “We know our current President is one. You know, he’s not even an American.” He then asked Trump what he intended to do about Muslim “training camps” in the U.S. Trump was criticized for not correcting the supporter, but he was voicing broadly held views that reflect increasing religious polarization in the U.S.
Religious polarization is one of the objectives of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and the Republican Party in the U.S. and right-wing political parties in Europe like that of Hungary’s Viktor Orban are aiding and abetting ISIS in achieving that objective by fueling the fires of religious fear and hatred. The best defense against Islamist terrorists like ISIS is to deny them legitimacy among Muslims, and that requires supporting moderate Muslims who are seeking to define Islam as a religion compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.
It is wrong to denigrate Islam as an inherently violent religion, and equally wrong to deny that ISIS is a militant and fundamentalist form of Islam. ISIS is just as much a distorted form of Islam as the Christian Crusades and Inquisitions were distorted forms of Christianity. The distorted Islamist doctrines of ISIS are based on fundamentalist Salafist and Wahhabist doctrines of Islam that are currently being debated within Islam. The future of Islam as a religion of peace and justice depends upon moderates prevailing over fundamentalists in defining the nature of Islam in a way that denies legitimacy to radical Islamist doctrines like those of ISIS.
Religion has been a major cause of hatred and violence and continues to be so today, and religion must play a major role in finding a lasting peace. Both Christianity and Islam have exclusivist and fundamentalist forms that condemn unbelievers and seek to impose their standards of legitimacy on others. Historically the institutional church has distorted the teachings of Jesus to create religious doctrines consistent with worldly power, and Islamism uses similar exclusivist and fundamentalist religious doctrines to achieve the same political objective.
Today Christianity is the world’s largest religion. Christians and Muslims make up over half of the world’s population, but by 2070 it is expected that Islam will supplant Christianity as the world’s largest religion. The increasing political polarization of Christians and Muslims has been exacerbated by the refugee crisis which has greatly increased the chances for religious violence; but violence can be minimized if Christians are true to the teachings of Jesus and Muslims insist upon modern interpretations of the teachings of Muhammad in the Qur’an.
In 2007 a distinguished group of Islamic scholars offered the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbors as oneself—even one’s unbelieving neighbors—as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The love for others requires providing the freedoms of religion and speech, and since apostasy and blasphemy laws continue to deny those fundamental freedoms in Islamic cultures there is some doubt whether loving one’s unbelieving neighbor is consistent with the Islamic faith. And while many Christian leaders applauded a common word of faith, only a few have since taken steps to make the moral imperative to love our neighbors—even our Muslim neighbors—a central theme of the Christian religion.
If Christianity and Islam put the moral imperative to love others, even unbelievers, at the heart of their religious doctrines, there would be much less religious polarization and resulting religious violence. To that end Christians who follow the teachings of Jesus should lead the way.
Jesus taught that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem all people in the universal family of God, but without favoring any one religion over others. Satan’s will is to divide and conquer people of faith, and Satan does a convincing imitation of God, with some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque. Reconciliation and redemption take place when God’s love and mercy are shared with others, and Satan’s fear and hate oppose God’s reconciling love. It should be obvious which religions are aligned with God and with Satan in the great cosmic battle for the hearts and minds of believers.
Partisan politics in the U.S. invariably produce polarizing political and religious issues that are used to mobilize the constituencies of those seeking power. The Republican Party includes Christian fundamentalists and others who favor traditional values, while Democrats include socialists, feminists, LGBT people and other minorities. Republicans favor “boots on the ground” to assert U.S. power overseas, while Democrats favor restraint. And in Islamic cultures those seeking political power play on similar exclusivist and polarizing themes. In the quest for political power, polarization is the norm rather than the exception. To avoid the exacerbation of religious violence, the politics of polarization must be replaced by a politics of reconciliation.
Religions must lead the way to a politics of religious reconciliation. Christians must bring their religion back to the teachings of Jesus, and Muslims must define Islam as a religion of peace and justice compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law in order to deny the legitimacy of radical Islamism. Religious reconciliation must begin with a genuine affirmation of the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. If that happens, there will be far less danger of religious polarization and violence.
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Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, December 29, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness, February 8, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; and The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015.
Donald Trump was criticized for not correcting a supporter who asserted that President Obama is a Muslim and not even an American. Trump responded by saying that “The bigger issue is that Obama is waging war against Christians in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.”
Michael Gerson has noted that Republican politics have taken a sharp turn toward religious polarization since 9/11. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/republicans-fringe-tone-on-islam-shows-a-sharp-turn-since-911/2015/09/10/5a1d6d80-57d9-11e5-8bb1-b488d231bba2_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.