I grow tired of hearing non-Muslims exclaim that Muslims are not all terrorists.
It is, of course, true. But it doesn't require much insight and rarely adds anything new to our society's strained discourse about Islam and terror. In fact, it often serves merely as a bone that critics throw out to claim they are fair before launching into a commentary about the vices of Islam as an ideology. As a Christian, I try to imagine what it would be like to hear non-Christians discussing my religion in such terms. I can understand how Muslims would find the whole discussion -- including this blog post --annoying.
And yet, despite my hesitations, current events convince me it is vitally important to continue the discussion.
In a sermon preached a few days after the Paris attacks last November, pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas repeated what is a mantra for him and similarly-minded Christians. Islam, he proclaimed, is a religion "inspired by Satan himself." His evidence consisted of a concoction of half-truths and blatant errors about Islam. The speech invites many responses, but I will address one statement that was central to his message. He opined, "It is impossible to separate what these [terrorists] did from their faith...that inspired them."
Is that true? What are the implications of such a claim?
I assume that Jeffress has a different opinion about Christianity. I assume he would say it is possible to separate the Christian faith from horrible acts that Christians have committed throughout history, even those done specifically in the name of Christ. He states that Christianity is inherently peaceful and Islam is inherently violent. If so, it follows that when Christians act badly, they are acting in opposition to the teaching of Christianity, but when Muslims act badly, they are acting, in his words, "according to the teaching of Islam."
Does the Christian faith, or sound reason, require such an interpretation of Islam?
It seems to me that insisting on such distinctions runs afoul of the Golden Rule. It also obscures the many psychological, historical and socioeconomic factors that influence terrorists. But those points aside for now, such interpretations also expose a crucial blind spot: They do not adequately account for good guys with Qur'ans. Stated as a question, what do you do with virtuous Muslims -- men and women -- who are specifically and sometimes heroically inspired by Islam's traditions, teachings and scriptures?
What do you do with Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the "Frontier Gandhi," and his legacy of nonviolence and peace-activism in 20th century India? As a Pashtun Muslim -- the same tribe as Afghanistan's Taliban -- Ghaffar Khan was inspired by the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad to lead hundreds of thousands in nonviolent resistance to harsh British rule.
Can you separate Ghaffar Khan's legacy of peace from the faith that inspired him?
What about the massive international philanthropic and peace initiatives currently inspired by Turkish imam and scholar, Fethullah Gülen? Gülen has been called "one of the world's most important Muslim figures," and while he is not without critics, he continues to call Muslims to act "without hands against those who strike you, without speech against those who curse you."
Can you separate Gülen's work and influence from the religion that inspires him and his followers?
How should we consider the Nyamirambo mosque in Rwanda? During Easter of 1994, as Rwanda -- one of the most Christianized countries in the world -- was erupting in genocidal violence and churches were becoming mass graves, this small mosque was one among many that stood against the chaos and welcomed and protected all ethnicities. Such counter-cultural courage led Christian theologian Emmanuel Katongole to conclude that during Easter 1994, "the Muslims of Nyamirambo... and not the Christian churches, embodied the hope of Christ's resurrection."
Can you separate such acts of courage from the religion that inspired them?
What do you do with Azim Khamisa, an ordinary citizen who became an extraordinary model of mercy after his son Tariq was murdered in 1995 in San Diego? Inspired by his Islamic faith, Azim turned his grief into forgiveness for the young man who killed his son, and started a foundation in partnership with the young man's grandfather to address youth violence.
Can you separate Azim's response from the faith and religion that inspired him?
I could also mention the Muslims in Kenya who refused to separate themselves from their Christian neighbors on a bus that was being attacked by al-Shabaab terrorists last month. Or those in Oslo who formed a "protective human ring" around a synagogue last year in response to attacks against Jewish communities. Or Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, and her courage to oppose Taliban brutality and advocate for female education in Pakistan. I could also add many examples of mercy and goodness I have personally experienced in Muslim colleagues and friends through the years.
Obviously, all Muslims are not terrorists. But Pastor Jeffress made at least one good point in saying you cannot completely separate terrorists' actions from their religious motivations. That is true for all terrorists and all their religious and nonreligious motivations. But a deeper point can also be made: It is also impossible to separate acts of courage, mercy and kindness from the religious motivations of the people who perform them, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.
In the end, the geopolitical and theological stakes are too high to be distracted by caricatures and reductionism. To move forward, we must first embrace our shared and complex humanity, and honor one another's virtues.