A Conversation

Yesterday I had the privilege to sit in on a roundtable discussion at the Duke Divinity School between Steve Gunter, a professor of Christian Evangelism, and Imam Abdullah Antlepi, the Duke Chaplain to Muslim students.  The discussion was moderated by Richard Hays, Dean of the Divinity School. 

The discussion was fascinating and ties neatly into a class I’m taking this semester on Islam.  I wish every American (every person in the world, for that matter) could have seen it.

I’m not going to take the time to organize my notes.  Rather, for any who may be interested, I’m just going to paste them here.  I may try to create a more structured version of my thoughts later.

Asked what he most admired about Christianity, the Imam responded that there were far too many things he admired to list them all, but if he had to choose one thing it would be “love and charity.”  He is from Turkey originally and his first contact with Christians was when doing relief work in Southeast Asia.  There, in Cambodia, he met and rubbed shoulders daily with American missionaries who had left the comfort of their affluent lives to work in dangerous and uncomfortable surroundings, motivated by love and charity.  He said they were a great inspiration to him and set him on his faith journey which eventually led him to his current position.

When asked what most troubled him about Christianity he named two things.  First was the concept of salvation/exclusivism.  Referring to his missionary friends, he told of how much he enjoyed their company and working with them.  He attended their Bible studies and worship services.  But when it became evident to them that he was not going to convert to Christianity, one of them cried because he said that meant Abdullah was going to go to Hell.  He talked about how that concept seemed inconsistent with the love and charity he was seeing in their lives.  The second was the lack of passion and piety he says in American Christians.  He said that if you ask a Muslim student how they show their devotion to God they will identify their prayers and the other things they do (the five pillars).  He said his experience with Christian students is that they seem perplexed by the question.  The absence of piety hurts him, he said.  Having studied in Christian seminaries he knows that they are duties that are incumbent on Christians and it hurts him to see so many Christians who are seemingly unaware of them.  “How can you know and love God without passion?” he asked.  If there is no passion for God, he may as well be an idol or a piece of stone.

Answering a question about sharia, he noted that it is commonly misunderstood by non-Muslims.  Sharia means “the path” and is the way Muslims bring religion and faith together.  Countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia may say they are operating under sharia, but he says they are not and that it is not possible to do so, since sharia has never been a codified set of laws.

He made an interesting observation about sharia.  Imam Fiesal Abdul Rauf (of the Park51 mosque fame) has created a metric used to determine whether potential investments are sharia-compliant.  The metric includes things like no alcohol, pork or gambling, but also other sharia concepts like fair wages, no religious discrimination, etc.  There were over 400 sharia categories in the metric.  Out of curiosity he decided to use the categories to rank countries based upon sharia compliance.  The surprising result is that no predominantly Muslim country is in the top 33 in sharia compliance.  The Scandinavian countries rank the highest and the USA is number 17.

He said we can’t discuss terrorism as if it were a theological question, because it isn’t.  Those who frame their politics as theological questions are just wrong.  Terrorism is a product not of a religion, but rather of a set of political, economic and social conditions that are producing some angry and evil people. 

He pointed out that the current situation in the Middle East must be seen in the light of the aftermath of colonialism.  At the turn of the last century the population of the Middle East was 20% Christian.  Even today 10% of Palestinians, 10% of Egyptians and 20% of Syrians are Christian, yet the West behaves as if they don’t exist and as if Christianity is a purely Western phenomenon.  He noted that these Christian communities thrived in predominantly Muslim societies for 15oo years, faring far better than religious minorities in the Christian countries of Europe.  But colonialism destroyed these Muslim societies and the regimes that have arisen in the aftermath are repressive.  He pointed out that repressive discriminatory regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are on the US payroll to the tune of billions of dollars per year.  He asked why we would unconditionally send billions of dollars to Egypt every year without requiring as a condition that the Christian Copts in Egypt be treated like human beings (a question I have asked on this blog several times).

Someone brought up the fact that Christians, Muslims and Jews are all part of the Abrahamaic family.  He responded that while true, by saying that we are an Abrahamaic family we exclude half of humanity and that half must look at us and wonder at what a severely dysfunctional family we seem to be.

The Imam said that he can’t stand “moderates.”  Moderates are lazy and by not speaking and acting they leave the field to the radicals and the extremists.  He called upon us to radicalize moderates and to all become “radical peacemakers.”

I’ve left out a lot of great stuff (of course I haven’t bothered to summarize Professor Gunter’s remarks, which were also excellent) and haven’t done the discussion justice, but this should give the flavor of it.

There are surprisingly few differences between Islam and Christianity, although the few differences that do exist are profound.  But without doubt we need to be in respectful conversation with one another, to recognize and appreciate the many things we share in common and to engage peacefully and lovingly on those matters on which we disagree.  It is not difficult if we just tune out the shrill voices of the hatemongers on both sides and choose instead to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Love Wins

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