Review of 2016 CATC Lectures on Muslim Extremism

The four-day conference sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College, known as Christ at the Checkpoint, was held for the fourth time on March 7-10, 2016. The theme was “the gospel in the face of religious extremism,” and each day of the conference was devoted to examining one of the monotheistic religions for this dangerous flaw, and then offering a Christian-gospel response.

The second day, devoted to Muslim extremism, potentially held the most promise and the greatest challenge. The international think-tank Gatestone Institute recently analyzed the 2016 World Watch List of nations condoning or conducting Christian persecution (published by the global organization Open Doors), and noted that 41 of the top 50 persecuting nations are motivated by Muslim extremism. What’s worse, in 35 Muslim-majority nations this persecution is driven by a policy of ethnic cleansing of Christians from their country. Most relevant to the Bethlehem conference was that the Palestinian Authority ranked no.24 (up from no.26 last year), with their persecution of Christians rated as “very high”. The response to this Muslim trend was therefore anticipated as a litmus test of the ability of CATC to “speak truth to power” on behalf of the local and regional Christian community.

Bethlehem Bible College Dean Munther Isaac opened the conference with special greetings to PA officials and “the heads of the security forces” (PA police in uniform, prominently positioned in the front row). After the opening prayer by Munir Kakish, President of the Council of Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land, Mr. Isaac asked everyone to “remain standing for the Palestinian national anthem.” This anthem is called “Fida’i”, which means “Martyr”, “Warrior” or “Freedom Fighter”, depending on the translator. Only the melody was played here, but it’s worth noting the lyrics, which glorify the “volcanic revenge” of the “freedom fighter” (click here to listen and read the English translation).

Munir Kakish then spoke briefly. As head of an organization constituting “the united voice of evangelicals in Palestine,” he declared his dedication to the “intellectual and ideological rejection of modern Zionism and racism,” referring to the two as inseparably linked. However, he also noted that for several years the Palestinian Authority (PA) hadn’t yet seen fit to “grant us our civil rights”; he revealed that evangelical churches in the PA can open bank accounts but cannot perform marriages or purchase property.

Then followed a “welcome” speech by Beit Jala Mayor Nicola Khamis, who used the opportunity to declare that “most of our [municipal] lands have been taken” by Israel for “illegal settlements, walls” and other uses by “the occupation”. He told the Christian audience that this “injustice was done with the blessing of Western Christians, including evangelicals” who believe that Jewish land-rights in the Holy Land derive from Scripture (or alternately, from history).

Bethlehem Bible College President Jack Sara, speaking on “the challenge of religious extremism”, began by defining the mission of the College, which is to “to advocate the Palestinian perspective”. Mr. Sara defined religious extremism with the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “Discard your god and worship mine, or else I will destroy your god and you too.” He then applied that definition to unidentified “fanatics” who recently killed nuns in Yemen, and to the Jews of the first century, from whom “Jesus faced a spirit of extremism”.

PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was scheduled to speak, but instead the conference heard from Hanna Amira, Head of the PA Presidential Committee for Church Affairs, who gave essentially the same speech as at the previous CATC conference. With Munther Isaac  translating from Arabic, Mr. Amira thanked the conference for speaking out to “end the longest military occupation modern history has known.” He accused the Israeli government of “giving the green light to the army and the settlers to continue their acts of killing the Palestinian people, including the women and children.” He defended the current Palestinian violence “as a natural reaction” to Israeli crimes, and blamed the world for not punishing Israel for acting like “a country above the law.” Meanwhile, the PA would continue its “non-violent resistance” against religious extremism in order to end “all forms of occupation and settlement [sic].”

Bishop Efraim Tendero, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, spoke on “the gospel and the challenge of global religious extremism.” Mr. Tendero’s example of “religious extremism” was Muslim, but he hastily added that “all major religions have examples,” and he cautioned his listeners not “to view extremism as coming from only one religion.” Addressing the global scope of religious extremism, Mr. Tendero denounced the massacre of Christians in the Middle East. Yet he firmly linked the “religious extremism”, which slaughters Christians, with the habit of “making exclusive territorial claims”, seemingly unaware that the opposite is demonstrated by Israel, the conference’s target for the “territorial” accusation.  

On the second day of the conference, which tackled “the challenge of religious extremism within Islam”, Mark Labberton, former President of Fuller Theological Seminary and American Presbyterian pastor, gave a Bible study on the Beatitudes. Mr. Labberton gave a concise description of the conditions that allow global religious persecution: “There are around 2.5 billion people who live outside the rule of law… and in that context, it’s just really the bully that wins.” He referred to many leaders around the world who have a stake in “acts of injustice” and who are “causing suffering to people, simply because they can”. Interestingly, he proposed that in their flight from Herod’s massacre, Jesus and His family had become the first refugees in the New Testament, “very similar to the narrative of Israel’s own life.”

Then followed a talk entitled,  “Peace and violence in Islam: a dialog with a Muslim leader.” The invited speaker, Mustafa Abu-Sway, introduced as an imam at “the holy Al-Aksa Mosque” a few kilometers away from the conference, “was unable” to show up in person. Instead, a pre-recorded video interview with Munther Isaac was presented.

Regarding Muslim-Christian relations, Mr. Abu-Sway was emphatically positive: “In general it’s a beautiful relationship.” When Mr. Isaac delicately mentioned the reality (“We have witnessed a lot of violence in the name of Islam,” backed by Koran verses), Mr. Abu-Sway explained this as a mistake made by a few who don’t consider the “Koranic context” of those killing verses; the Muslims had been suffering 13 years of persecution, and Muhammad was simply telling them to defend themselves by slaughtering whole villages.

Mr. Isaac’s response: “It seems the only voice we are hearing is the voice of extremists. Maybe we are not listening carefully.” But when he asked, “Is the conflict here a political conflict, or a religious one of Jihad?” careful listeners noted that Mr. Abu-Sway did not give a clear answer.

Mr. Isaac repeated to the Muslim cleric the charge by media watch-dog groups that “Palestinians are taught to hate the Jews, and that the problem is a religious one between… Islam and Judaism.” The reply curtly attributed this charge to “spin doctors on the Israeli side.” Mr. Abu-Sway refuted it categorically: “We never taught our kids to hate!” It’s Israeli occupation crimes which “feed the anger” and the call to shed Jewish blood.

In response, Mr. Isaac helpfully clarified that the Koran has nothing to do with Koran-based anti-Semitism: “So you’re saying we should look at all these speeches which are sometimes quoted, in the context of the occupation.”

The next speaker was Chawkat Moucarry, Interfaith Director at World Vision, speaking on “religious extremism and Islam, a gospel perspective.” After noting that when religion is associated with politics, there is injustice, oppression and violence, he described Muhammad as “a prophet as well as a political leader and army commander” who was convinced that he was to “wage war” against those who did not accept his message. Despite that clear description of Islam’s violent roots, he proposed that one must consider the global “context” for the current religious war: “anger” against the treatment of Muslims elsewhere, unspecified “alienation”, and a sense of “adventure” that attracts the young. On the other hand, even today Islam makes it obligatory on Muslims to “fight if necessary.” And how should Christians respond? In an effort to avoid either “hostility or naivete”, Mr. Moucarry recommended non-judgmental self-criticism. Since the Jews had committed “ethnic cleansing” under Joshua 4000 years ago, and “Christians” had led the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, “let us be humble and not throw stones at others.”

Instead, Christians must “engage with all Muslims as our neighbors.” Even the terrorists? Mr. Moucarry assured his listeners that the estimated 15 million Muslim extremists represent only 1 percent of the Muslim population. Seeming unconcerned about the idea of 15 million potential terrorists, he recommended focusing on the other 99 percent. He then recited the “Fatiha” in Arabic (the opening verses of the Koran, which are regarded by Muslims as having spiritual power), while displaying it in English. He asked the audience if they found anything objectionable in it, expecting and receiving a no. Yet the last part of the Fatiha, which limits the blessing and “grace” of God to “those who are not under Your wrath and who do not go astray”, was left unexamined. Satisfied, Mr. Moucarry concluded: “This is what Islam is about.” For those being tormented by that extremist 1 percent, such as Christians in his native Syria, Mr. Moucarry encouraged them to “hope against hope” for the peace of God.

Jonathan Kuttab, Board Chair for the Bethlehem Bible College, summarized the lectures so far by likening Islam to Christianity. He stated that the “pressure of extremist Islam is a manifestation of the fact that they feel vulnerable, powerless, defeated, occupied, lost;” adding that the Christians in the past reacted “the same way” to non-Christians. Mr. Kuttab advised us to understand Islamic violence in this “larger historical context”.

For his main message, Mr. Kuttab said: “Finally we come to the question of Israel and Palestine, where we see in the State of Israel, proclaiming itself to be a Jewish State, a strange hybrid. There is almost a revival of a Jewish State, insisting on special and particular and exclusive rights to Jews, at the expense of the non-Jewish, indigenous Palestinian population. And yet this State also tries to be part of the modern world, the Western world, tries to proclaim itself to be democratic, the only democracy in the Middle East, but it keeps falling back into the idea of a religious, ethno-centric identity… [and the Jews] demand that others accept this Jewish identity.” Rhetorically he asked, “What does that do to Christians and Muslims?”

Therefore, Mr. Kuttab reasoned, how can Muslims be expected to abandon their extremist violence when “we find Jews here, asserting power as Jews, political power, and demanding to be recognized as a Jewish state?”  Mr. Kuttab did not explain how Jewish self-determination related to the day’s topic of “Muslim extremism” or to the speakers before him, who spoke sparingly about Christians being persecuted by Muslims. But he concluded with the reminder that “we at CATC are trying to wrestle with these issues… with openness and humility… as followers of Christ.”

The next speaker, Salim Munayer, head of the reconciliation organization Musalaha, a Bethlehem Bible College professor and an Israeli citizen, gave a Palestinian perspective to Muslim extremism. Mr. Munayer called on his audience to hold their governmental leaders accountable to God’s standards, and to be a “prophetic voice in the face of injustice,” by protesting “the continuous occupation” of Palestinian-claimed land, and “the rise of violent Jewish extremism”. He declared that Palestinian Christians must present an alternative to the “clash of dominations [sic] between the West and radical Islam, especially as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” To his credit, he attempted to respond to the “radicalization of Palestinians” by advocating for pluralism, law and order and minority protection.

The last speaker of day two was Rick Love. As President of the “Peace Catalyst” outreach to Muslims, Pastor Love gave advice about relating to “our Muslim neighbor.” When it comes to extremist or violent Muslims, he noted that “the war on terror is not doing very well.” Not only are there are “no quick fixes”, but he anticipated that destroying ISIS would just cause new radicals to rise in its place. “Do not fear, just get together with them and love them.”

Mr. Love admitted that the idea of hugging the sword-swinging ISIS executioners would not be popular, so he recommended reaching out instead to Muslims in the streets as “a long-term strategy.” And for the short term? Be discerning, he advised: we need to “be realistic about the real intention of some Muslims”, but these really  “evil” neighbors who need direct confrontation are “a minuscule number.”

Christians should therefore “partner with mainstream Muslims” to “undermine radical extremism” at the individual level by living in peace (Romans 12), and let their respective governments (excluding Israel) “bear the sword” (Romans 13) and use force to punish the Muslim extremist evil at the group level.

Muslim extremism in general, but particularly against Christians, is a relevant and pressing issue, tragically demonstrated by the massacre of Pakastani Christians on Easter, only a few weeks after the CATC conference. While there was much for the CATC speakers to address, unfortunately they were largely silent on the challenging reality for Christians living in Muslim countries, instead focusing most of their attention on what they deem as Israeli aggression against Palestinians.