In a global news-saturated age, each of us can fall into the trap of rushing to find simple explanations for complex and distressing events. In the process, we too easily dehumanise those of different faiths and mistakenly link events to religious causes and innocent individuals. A Middle East writer who has seen Christians and Muslims make the same mistake, warns us against jumping to conclusions.
The global age has brought many previously unknown blessings and opportunities. The flow of information and swift exposure to what is happening around the world and the ease of travelling have all been great blessings. These have truly enriched our personal knowledge of the world.
Yet, the same exposure has also brought many difficulties. Not least of these is the risk of being overwhelmed as we are assailed by constant reports of wars, acts of terror, revolutions, violence and political crises. We have been made with cognitive urges to unify the scattered and unconnected data we encounter in order to make some sense of things. The constant bombardment makes that a challenge.
We develop impressions, personal judgements and perceptions based upon those unified narratives that each of us uses to make sense of what we see happening in the world. In the face of data overload, the danger is to see the world in black and white, to find clear-cut culprits and causes behind problems even where there is none or the causes we think of have nothing to do with it.
This challenge can be seen in increasingly worrying levels of categorical perspectives on each other held by Muslims and Christians. Behind this lie multiple conflicts, political developments, security concerns, and issues around migration and social cohesion.
At a recent Christian gathering, I found myself totally lost in trying to even engage with the questions and concerns Christians had about Islam. Most questions and comments attempted to melt together Islamic thought and sacred texts with various global issues, such as the Iranian revolution of 1979, Palestinian politics, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the Arab Spring, the integration of Turks into German society and forced marriages among South Asian communities in the UK.
The questions all aimed to find a ‘core’ of Islam and Muslims that, when discovered, would somehow explain and make clear sense of all these different developments. In the process, a dangerous narrative started to emerge. One that makes all Muslims a single entity, all intrinsically linked and related with each of these issues, all motivated by a clear single aim, and Islam is seen as the root of a myriad of tremendously complex issues of Middle East.
Ironically, my first taste of such blurred visions of the world was not in the UK or US, but in the Middle East. Throughout my entire younger life I heard Muslims talking of a Christian West that was on a crusade, aimed to destroy the Muslim world. Thus everything, from American Republicans to French politics, Greek and Turkish tensions over disputed naval waters to Serbian Christian snipers shooting Bosnian Muslims, the US invasion of Iraq all the way to British support for Bahrain – all were seen as part of a Christian plan and vision based upon the beliefs and practices of Christianity.
Thus, a local Christian in the Middle East could be looked at, not as a simple Christian who has nothing to do with any of these things, but (s)he could easily be dehumanised and seen as a ‘foreign agent’ who works for the CIA. In many places, Christians suffer discrimination on the basis of such types of paranoia, conspiracy theories and misconceptions.
For us as British Christians, such a grand narrative about a global Christian plot sounds bizarre and far-fetched. No amount of Bible verses and Christian language used by politicians that Muslim preachers selectively pick on will ever actually explain, for example, why the US decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. While Middle East Muslims might see a “Christian” Europe, we don’t see our societies that way, and in fact most European Christians mourn the utter lack of Christian voices in the public, political and cultural echelons of Europe.
And yet we Christians in UK need to be aware of the plank in our own eyes (Matt 7:3). We might at times be vulnerable falling into the same trap some Muslims in the Middle East fall into. The trap of defacing and dehumanising our Muslim neighbour simply because we hold simple and unified narratives on world affairs and Islam. In this process, our neighbour becomes an abstraction, a part of the anxiety we feel about challenges facing Britain, Europe and the Middle East, no matter how distinctly independent these issues are from each other.
This, no matter where it happens, is a failure of clear thinking which has powerful real-life outcomes around the world. It fuels xenophobia, mistrust, prejudice, hatred, everyday racism, bullying, marginalisation, and in some cases attacks and violence against minorities even here in the UK and Europe.
For us as Christians, the Gospel brings a serious responsibility. It forbids us from giving in to the temptation to live in simple narratives that see people who do not share our faith as ultimate enemies or evil doers. We know we are all fallen, we are all sinners and we all have the potential to destroy and hurt others, Christians and Muslim alike. The Gospel urges us to reach the world, to be peacemakers and to be those who bring God’s message of forgiveness, restoration and justice for all.
Far more challengingly, Christ bluntly notes that without loving our neighbour, we cannot claim to love God the Father. But, who is our neighbour? Not people like us or one of ‘us’.. In today’s Britain, our neighbours are Muslims, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees. In other words, those that much current talk in British politics turns into unwanted, despised and feared individuals. Yet, Christ says to us: without loving them, we can’t love God (Matthew 22:39).
Therefore, when we give in to demonising members of another faith because this confusing world is at times too complicated and scary, we do not simply commit an intellectual error but a deeply spiritual failure that ultimately contradicts the very core of our Christian faith.