Editor's Note: This article originally ran in September 2006. In light of the anniversary of 9/11 and recent controversies, we're running it again as a reminder of that to which followers of Christ are called.
Where were you when the Danish cartoon controversy broke last fall? Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that thousands of Muslims worldwide were in the streets shouting and protesting and sometimes killing others in the name of Allah — all over a handful of roughly-sketched editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad?
Most of us do not remember the beginnings of this culture clash, certainly not with the same specificity and emotion of the 9/11 attacks, and rightly so. But these two events are inextricably linked. They point to the same issue — the growing disconnect between Muslims and the rest of the world, between East and West, between the have-nots and the haves, a divide that is only increasing in our 21st century world.
They also share this: they leave many Westerners, and many Western Christians, scratching their heads with bewilderment. "Why do Muslims act that way? Why do they hate the West so much? Why are they so violent? How can we understand them?"
Many experts on Christian-Muslim relations have compelling, insightful answers to these questions. They speak on the same themes — that Muslims are no further from the reach of the gospel than we are, that sharing the gospel with Muslims means developing a friendship with them first. And sometimes their advice is conflicting — on whether there is hope for peace in the Middle East, for example. But a common thread winds through their counsel: We cannot afford to ignore the religious and cultural divides between us. The Lord has called us to reach out in love, past our differences, and to graciously share the good news of the gospel with the Muslims around us.
The Stakes are High
There are well over one billion Muslims in the world today. Additionally, Islam is arguably the fastest growing religion on the planet (largely because of biological growth). "One of the biggest misconceptions in the U.S. is that we can ignore Muslims," says Scott Seaton, former head of Mission to the World's (MTW) Enterprise for Christian-Muslim Relations. "But Europe is a prime example of what will happen if we don't start relating to the Muslims in our backyard. We will experience problems like the Danes and Germans and French are having."
Seaton believes that Western Christians must be willing to explore their misunderstandings about Islam, and vice versa. "There is a great challenge to clear up misconceptions on both sides, to educate ourselves about Islam, and to encourage churches and believers to make Muslim ministry a priority."
Iraj, an Iranian immigrant and Christian convert who heads a "Light for Islam" ministry, agrees. "The majority of American people don't know what to believe about Islam," he says. "After 9/11 everyone was on the bandwagon to learn about Muslims, but that has died down. We must show Christians how to build bridges of love to Muslims. I believe God has brought Muslims to the U.S. for a reason, but the church has not woken up to its responsibility to share Christ with people in desperate need for it."
Ask any student of Christian-Muslim relations about the challenges inherent in this ministry, and the conversation inevitably turns to misconceptions. Muslims carry wrong beliefs about Christians, and vice versa. Following is a primer on the most common errors Christians make about Muslims.
1. "They're all the same."
"There's a huge difference between Muslims from different parts of the world," said Jud Lamos, current director of MTW's Enterprise for Christian-Muslim Relations. "Asian, Middle Eastern, and even African cultures are very different from American culture. The 220 million Muslims in Indonesia are different from the 60 million Muslims in Turkey, for example."