On (Not) Offending Muslims
Kevin James Bywater
As they say, reality can be stranger than fiction. So it is with people: the realities can be stranger than the stereotypes. And some conversations are just different that usual. Some can strip away preconceptions. Here are snippets from one I had with a Muslim taxi driver in Oxford. He was an amiable chap, about my age.
• • •
We had been quipping back and forth about the traffic when I asked, “Where are you from?”
He chuckled deeply, “Pakistan.”
Really, I wondered to myself, with his clear Oxford accent?
“How long have you lived here in Oxford?” I followed up.
“For over forty years,” he smiled. “I was born here. I grew up here, in Cowley.”
He was born in Oxford. He grew up in Oxford. He is from Pakistan?!
What strange language is this, I wondered. Then I realized that it sounds about how children of Christian missionaries might answer.
A couple of our children were born here in the U.K., one since we founded our study centre. If someone asks them where they are from, our children hear a complicated question and give a complicated answer. They might note the city in which they were born, or that they were born here in the U.K., and then add that they are Americans, citizens of the United States of America.
• • •
As with many other taxi drivers, I asked if he enjoyed living in Oxford.
“Why yes,” he quickly answered. “I like Oxford very much. It is very peaceful here.”
When I asked if he had visited Pakistan, he enthusiastically told me of the time he took several months to tour his home country. I then asked whether he would ever want to live there permanently.
“Not really,” he grumbled, with a bit of a scowl. Then the furrows on his forehead softened and he said that he enjoyed living in here. “Oxford’s very peaceful, you know.”
It is interesting to me how often Muslims in Oxford tell me that they like living in Oxford “because it is very peaceful here.” In fact, it is something of a refrain. I’ve heard it so frequently that I now would be surprised if someone were to say otherwise.
• • •
We spoke about each being foreigners living in Oxfordshire. I pointed up some of the anti-Americanism that I had encountered, then I asked if he had ever experienced any sort of discrimination or anything that offended him.
“No, not really,” he remarked. Then he explained: “Of course, there are places you might not want to go. But you can avoid them.” He paused, reaching for some other experience. “You know,” he started, “there is something. I was offended recently.”
I asked him to explain.
“This year they decided not to have a Nativity Play at my daughter’s school,” he said with some disdain.
“And that offends you?” I inquired, honestly a bit perplexed.
“Yes!” he emphasized. “Yes, that offends me! I went to that school myself. I played Joseph!”
I burst into laughter before thinking to see if he was still offended.
“So, why did they cancel the play this year?” I asked.
“They said they didn’t want to offend the non-Christian families. In particular, they didn’t want to offend Muslim families. My family! Me!”
He was quite emphatic about all this, even a bit animated. I could hear that was taking it personally. Clearly he had been offended. Then he explained.
“As Muslims, we believe in the nativity of Jesus, in his virgin birth, that he is special,” he went on. “He is a prophet, a very special man.”
The irony was thick. With an aim toward not offending Muslim families, the school bureaucrats had taken specific measures that ended up offending Muslim families. Zeal without knowledge. Uninformed actions with the aim of showing respect. And a profound lesson on (not) offending Muslims.
• • •
Since he now was very engaged in our conversation, and since we only had a few minutes remaining for our trip, I decided to avoid any controversial subjects.
I began, “I wonder,” and then I paused. “As an American, I wonder, what do you think about President George Bush?” I think I may have winced while asking that, anticipating a flood of critical comments.
“Oh, well,” he said in rather measured, modest, even resigned tones. “Some people think Mr. Bush is a horrible man, but I, I just see him as something like a patriarch, a man who is trying to take care of his people. And who can object to that?”
I picked up my jaw and closed my mouth, baffled, absolutely baffled. A patriarch? Even when he was our president, I didn’t view him that way. Then again, I’m not from Pakistan, am I.
• • •
For further study on the subject of Islam, and the points I’ve mentioned above, here are some links to a variety of resources that I think are relevant.
Two years ago I published online a longish essay named “Liberty or Islamic Law?” My intention was to point up how Islamic law (shariah) is essentially at odds with the liberties we enjoy in America, and in Western Civilization more broadly. As such, yes, Islam stands distinctly contrary to the U.S. Constitution, even if some Muslims might jettison much of Shariah and thus come into accord with constitutional principles.
More recently I draw on a commonly used college text on Islam to point out the Islam is Shariah and Shariah is Islam: “Islam and the Shariah.” The point here is that there is such a thing as original Islam, and it is a political ideology, complete with civil laws, even if some Muslims throughout history, and in our own day, might seem to distance themselves from such features of Islam.
Perhaps there is something larger and more significant to know about regarding the inherently expansionist nature of Islam. I discuss this at some length in “Islamic Imperialism.” Personally, I am still struck deeply by the content of this post, particularly with regards to Islam’s inherent and original imperialistic drive and how this so fundamentally differs from the calling of Jesus Christ in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. But then there is the fact that Christianity and European imperialism have been entwined for so many centuries.
I take this discussion a bit further while discussing “The Islamic State and Islam,” exploring whether the fabulously violent Islamic State is truly Islamic in any meaningful sense.
To take the study of Islamic imperialism further, I would recommend two books: Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh, and Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis. Both volumes have nuanced my understanding of the original and inherent political nature of Islam, that Islam is a political ideology.
As a related study, here is an author who seeks to answer the question, “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?”
Even so, I believe we must appreciate that not all Muslims are like all other Muslims. This is illustrated in a documentary that our Oxford Study Centre students watch each term: Inside Mecca. It also is evident in the essay mentioned above, “Liberty or Islamic Law?” Do note there the nuances that not all Muslims seek the imposition of Shariah on society. Indeed, apparently many most definitely do not want that. This is evident in my reflective essay, “On (Not) Offending Muslims.” This essay points to some conversations with Muslims that fundamentally have challenged my expectations.
Meeting with kind Muslims can lead us to wonder whether they’ll be alright in future divine judgment. I explore this sort of question in “Do Muslims, Mormons, and Christians Worship the Same God?” This is the most popular post on my blog. Clearly it tackles an important question. To this day I sense that this is a vitally important inquiry. While my approach may not be common, I’m still confident that it is warranted.
Years ago I came across the Islamic claim that Islam fulfills Christianity as Christianity fulfills Old Testament religion. I explored this idea in a long essay that later was reduced to two short essays (part 1 and part 2).
Due to my interest in the subject, the study of Islam is a significant part of our worldview studies at Oxford Study Centre (see the recent readings list for our worldviews course). Our students all have to read the Qur’an in its entirety, spend at least four hours reading the Hadith, and usually we meet with an imam in Oxford for an extended conversation.
There is so much more that could be read on this subject. After all, Islam is a world religion, one that has significantly affected most of the world. Even so, in none of these essays do I discuss evangelistic techniques or opportunities. I do that in our Summit Oxford worldview intensive, mind you. But one of the main reasons I’ve refrained from writing on evangelizing Muslims is that I feel others have written extraordinarily well on the subject. That is why I strongly recommend Reaching Muslims by Nick Chatrath, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi, and What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an by James White. I also recommend reading or glancing through the Qur’an itself, as well as a text on Islam written by non-Christians, The Vision of Islam.
Note: A version of this post was first published in this blog on 17 July 2013.