Why learn about Islam?

Why learn about Islam? Frank, Ken & Betty - Turkey After 9/11, many people suddenly said, "I've got to learn about Islam." What were their reasons? Are Christians under any obligation to learn about Islam?

 

Frank, Ken & Betty - Turkey

After 9/11, many people suddenly said, "I've got to learn about Islam." What were their reasons? Are Christians under any obligation to learn about Islam?

I remember an incident in a course I once took on “World Religions.” We had a hefty textbook that dealt with the world’s great religious traditions. It described the history, the scriptures, the rituals, the major figures, and the beliefs of each tradition, one by one. During the course the professor found some of the students uninterested and wondered why. One person answered, “I’m just learning this stuff to pass the course. It’s no use to me. I don’t believe it anyway, and I’m going to forget it the minute the course is over.”

In the many years since then I’ve often thought about this incident and that student. I noticed that after 9/11, many people suddenly said, “I’ve got to learn about Islam.” The Quran reportedly sold out on Amazon.com. I wonder what that student felt about “world religions” after 9/11.

The other day I ran into an American here in Istanbul who said he came to live for one year in Turkey. “9/11 was God’s wake-up call to me,” he said. “I felt that I should live in a Muslim culture and find out what’s going on.”

The phenomenon reminds me of the interest of Americans in Japan in the 1980s and 90s. Japan’s rise in economic power caused some Americans to wonder if Japan had some secret for power and success that would supersede America’s. It seemed that this interest in Japan was based on fear. Such people may have been following the maxim, “Know your enemy.” Is that the idea behind the current urge to learn about Islam? If so, that’s exactly the wrong reason to learn about another’s religion.

I’ve lived in Turkey for more than 20 years. All Muslims I know are appalled by 9/11 and by the stereotypical association of their religious tradition with terrorism. They unreservedly condemn anyone, especially any Muslim, who would terrorize others as being diametrically opposed to the ideals of Islam. The greatest obstacle to overcome in getting Christians to know Muslims and Islam is breaking the attachment between the words “terror” and “Muslim.”

What about the other way around? What’s the greatest prejudice that Muslims must overcome in learning about Christians and Christianity? In this case it’s the association between the words “materialist” and “Christian.” When Muslims think that Christians are materialists, what they mean is a lack of spirituality and morality, a lack of fear of God, an amoral, scientific explanation for everything, an emphasis on commerce and money, on becoming richer and richer without limit, on ignoring human dignity and freedom for the sake of profit, on taking and consuming far past the point of sufficiency, on continually casting about for the wealth of others and scheming how to grab it.

These are stereotypes, and like all stereotypes, unfair and hurtful. Yet it may be that there is something to learn from them. What have Muslim societies historically experienced that have given rise to these stereotypes? What actions do Christian peoples take today that reinforce these unfair generalizations? Many non-Muslim commentators ask Muslims to examine seriously the connections between their religion and terrorism. Perhaps these commentators could fruitfully apply the same sort of advice to prejudices about themselves.

There are many hundreds of American missionaries here in Turkey who are learning about Islam in order to triumph over it. It seems to be their understanding of Christian mission. They’ve studied how to repudiate every Islamic belief, doctrine, and practice with what they claim is the greater truth. They know how to defend every attack on Christian beliefs that Muslims might make. The “conflict of civilizations” language resonates with them. Martial terms are used: “on the front lines,” “soldiers for Christ,” “attack and defense,” and so on. When this approach is combined with the world-wide power of the US military and US invasions and bombing of other countries, I despair. The situation grows as far from the Golden Rule and the Spirit of Christ that I can imagine.

I console myself by saying that my Muslim friends, in knowing me, know at least one American Christian who aspires to be a friend without designs on them. And I know them to be friends whose lives have something to teach me. I am grateful for this chance. I learn about Islam to learn about my friends and neighbors.

--Ken Frank

Istanbul, Turkey

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).