Last week I was at a church in St. Louis encouraging Christians to build relationships of peace with their Muslim neighbors. Exhorting everyone in attendance to look beyond the headlines I promised that they would often find hospitality and friendship not hostility and violent fundamentalism.
I received follow-up e-mails, as I often do after public engagements, asking about Islamism and terrorism. Then, Friday night I received a message with the subject line, "What do you have to say for yourself now?"
The e-mail linked to news stories unfolding in Paris where a volley of nearly simultaneous attacks rocked the French capital and left 128 dead. Daesh -- the Arabic name for ISIS -- claimed responsibility for the attack and immediately the specter of religious inspired terrorism manifested itself again.
At the same time, I saw prayers for peace on a Muslim Facebook page and heard stories about the ministry of a Houston imam visiting prisoners with grace and goodwill. Mixed with the sadness over the chaos in Paris was confusion, and questions, over which represents Islam.
Is Islam that which inspires acts of brutalism in city streets? Surely, millions of Muslims would protest, using hashtags like #Iamnotaterrorist alongside messages of support and solidarity (#JeSuisParis or #PrayforBeirut). Or is Islam that which brings students from a local university to visit a masjid and the hundreds of faithful gathered for prayer to extend warm hospitality? Perhaps, it is both...and much more. That response can prove unsettling and unsatisfactory. Yet, it may be the most accurate and fruitful.
Talal Asad said Islam is "a discursive tradition" -- a set of religious symbols that take on meaning, value, and expression in various social and political situations where multiple processes, discussions, and negotiations are involved. Still, this does not quite represent how Islam -- in all its complexity and conceptualizations -- can be downright contradictory. As Shahab Ahmed intimated in What is Islam? the main challenge in interpreting Islam is coming to terms with the considerable diversity of beliefs, practices, and postures of global Islam while simultaneously appreciating that there are shared principles which act as a cri de coeur for Muslims across the world.
The uncomfortable truth is that essentialized conceptualizations that say "Islam = violence" or "Islam = peace" are insensitive to the alterations and negotiations that characterizes lived Islam in interaction with myriad Muslim constituencies and non-Muslim actors.
There are many Muslims who make the mistake of assuming that Islam can be easily conceived as one. Reformers and radicals alike assume that some return to a point of origin will offer a new beginning and promise of a burgeoning unity of purpose and vision among the umma. Yet, what occurs in areas of awakening and reform is increased complexity, disunity and conflict. The situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Egypt, and elsewhere tell the tale. The promise of unity and resolution through revision, revival and reform does not match the reality of irresolvable crisis (fitna) and contradiction of thought, word, and deed among the world's many Muslims.
On the other hand, orientalist notions of Islam are often jejune in their casting of a "clash of civilizations" between an imagined West and a trumped up vision of "Islam" as the "enemy at the gate." Similarly simplistic are those convinced that certain types of Islam offer peace over-and-against others (e.g. Sufis v. Salafis) or that jihadis are not part of Islam. If we are to take a Muslim who would never raise a hand in hate against another at their word about their faith we likewise have to listen when jihadis claim to kill in the name of Allah.
Indeed, the very nature of the Islamic tradition often depends as much on non-Muslim conceptualizations as it does on Muslims. Whether Muslim or not, all of our conceptions of Islam help make it what it is and, sometimes, are implicated in the violent reactions of Muslims who feel ostracized and marginalized by "the West" they have been told they do not fit in.
I know those words sting. Yet, the truth is that any understanding of Islam has to appreciate both the text and traditions of Islam along with the diverse contexts and conduct of Muslims throughout the world and come to terms with, and discuss, contradictory apperceptions, appropriations, and applications of what Islam is and is not.
We cannot cling to shallow dichotomies. Such a move may seem convenient, but it is not accurate, nor, in the end helpful. What is fruitful is being willing to admit the complexities and contradictions of what Islam is, or is not (or for that matter what any religion is or is not -- e.g. are Christians those who pray for peace or protest military funerals, or both?) and wading into the messy fray of relationships across religious divides anyways.
The anonymous e-mailer asked, "what do I have to say for myself now?" My reply is that coming to terms with the contradictions of Islam, and our own concepts, we must all begin to seek relationships of peace in the midst of chaos.
As Jon Huckins, Co-Director of the Global Immersion Project, said in reaction to the Paris attacks, "we have to begin taking seriously our mandate to preemptively work for peace." What this means is that while education and instruction are good, ending the tension between different traditions and world views will require relationships, interaction, and experiential exchange among Muslims and Christians, humanists and Hindus and everyone in between.
We must move from a posture of defense to one of hospitality, to foster peacemaking in "the fertile soil of relationships," said Huckins. Our response to attacks in Beirut and Paris must be relational. Given the complexity, the chaos, and outright contradictions of reality -- religious or otherwise -- we must sit, mourn, talk, and act together as individuals not defined as Christian or Muslim or any other label, but as friends. That isn't a contradiction, it's a path to a covenant for a world not defined by terror, but tranquility.