This week, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, another unnecessary confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslim Americans unfolded, quickly becoming an international incident. Within 24 hours, it had resulted in the deaths of four Americans. The situation began as a group of protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. Media reports are connecting the attack to a trailer to a film titled Innocence of Muslims, produced by “Sam Bacile” (a pseudonym) in the U.S. that depicts the life of Muhammad in unflattering and vile ways. The film is allegedly connected to Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who made international headlines and helped fuel violence in the Middle East with his threats to burn a Qur’an, the sacred scriptures of Islam, but this is unconfirmed. What is clear is that in the wake of the uprisings in the Middle East over the film Jones has stated publicly that he supports the film, and that the Muslim protesters have connected him to it. In the most recent update, according to Religion Dispatches, a California man—named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula— claimed to be responsible for the film. He said that it was “intended to be a provocative political statement assailing the religion” of Islam. The possible connection to Jones, and related concerns, have been enough to lead not only to the attack in Egypt but also to an attack in Libya. There, eruptions over the film fueled an unstable atmosphere that allowed terrorists to attack and kill the U.S. ambassador. The violence has spread to Yemen, and perhaps sparked other protests across the Middle East as well.
Various caveats should be offered in response to these incidents. First, as noted above it is unclear exactly who is responsible for producing this film. The most recent reports are unclear as to whether Jones was involved, whether the film producers are Evangelicals or belong to Christian groups, or whether this is a huge disinformation campaign designed by some to foment violence. For example, U.S. officials are now saying that the embassy attacks may have been planned in advance with the film protests used as a diversion. Second, nothing can be cited as appropriate justification for violence or acts of terrorism, no matter how inflammatory to a religion. Third, many Muslim-countries do not recognize freedoms of speech and religion as they are understood in the United States.
But with these caveats in mind, the response of a segment of the Muslim world to a film that may have been produced by Evangelicals provides an opportunity for sober reflection by the Evangelical Christian community.
What lessons might be learned by Evangelicals as they seek to respond to and interact with the broader religious world, including Islam, in a context that all too easily leads to violence?
Much of the conservative commentary on this event, within and outside Evangelicalism, has emphasized American freedoms of speech concerning the right to share whatever views one might have about Islam. While it is certainly true that Americans have the right to express our convictions, from a Christian perspective our freedoms are informed by love for others; at times, we must be willing to restrict our freedoms for the brethren (1 Corinthians 8) and the world at large. In this instance, it may very well entail restricting our use of our constitutional freedoms for the greater good in the public square here and abroad. With this in mind, we would do well to remember that with the Internet we live in a global village, and the rhetoric, tactics and approval of a controversial pastor or filmmakers can contribute to an international climate of tension that may lead to violence and death in other parts of the world. Simply because we have such freedoms does not mean we must always exercise them; when we do exercise such freedoms, they should be exercised in ways that come down on the side of caution, seeking to contribute to the way of peace for the sake of Americans living and serving overseas, including our fellow Christians living in Muslim lands.
Related to this is the present need for positive engagement of those with whom we disagree on religious matters. The formation of our national identity has often mirrored the formation of our faith identity. In times past the U.S. often found its self-identity in terms of that to which it was opposed.. In the post-war years it was Communism, and with the fall of the Soviet Union it later became an identity forged in opposition to Islamic terrorism. Similarly, Evangelicals have tended to form their identities, at least in part, in relation to those religious groups they oppose. Islam (and perhaps Mormonism) tops the list.
But there are promising and positive elements across the spectrum of Evangelicalism in connection with these events, and across the broader landscape of religion, too. For example, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement decrying the film and calling for interfaith understanding. It is a positive event when a major conservative evangelical organization like this recognizes the challenges we face in inter-religious engagement.
In another example, Brian McLaren’s new book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books), he discusses this form of Christian identity and suggests that an alternative needs to be considered. That is, we can maintain a strong Christian identity, but do so in ways that seek to connect this with benevolence toward those in other religions rather than hostility. In application to the film which allegedly sparked these international incidents, Evangelicals should consider living out a benevolent Christian identity that works it out in praxis resulting in the production of materials and developing approaches that seek to winsomely and positively engage Muslims, seeing them as persons to be approached via fairness, relationships, conversations, and hospitality, rather than as things possessed by an ideology to be engaged by confrontation-provoking exposes.
We are contributing positively in our own way by pursuing diplomatic efforts in our work at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. In fact, our work with Zen Buddhist Priest Kyogen Carlson at FRD and in other contexts provides insight for further reflection and principles that can be put in place for engagement with various traditions. Abbot Carlson’s participation in the volume Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and his community’s year-long involvement with those at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah Biblical Seminary on a grant from the Association of Theological Schools are suggestive indicators of what can be developed elsewhere in writing projects and in public spaces (Listen here to a discussion on the volume and the year-long initiative.). Our shared desire to promote hospitable dialogue and public rhetoric befitting the common good and neighborliness in our society led Abbot Carlson and us to reason that it is vitally important to guard against ideological campaigns by cultivating opportunities to come together as local communities of faith to talk through our respective convictions and possible conflicts in search of the common good. We must have face-to-face interaction to guard against face-offs. The more we look one another in the eye with respect the less opportunity we have to project onto one another stereotypes and the more opportunity we have to see that we share a common humanity. Without such face-to-face encounters, we will continue to face-off and deface our common humanity.
Eleven years after the worst terrorist attack on US soil, events took place which provided a grim reminder of the challenges we continue to face. It is not enough to only remember and to grieve each 11th of September, but instead we must be engaged in self-critical forms of reflection and action that seek to increase understanding and peacemaking in the way of Jesus.
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is the Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University; Charter Member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy; and author of Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths.
John W. Morehead, is Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.