by Ashraf Atieh and Brian Newman
Ashraf Atieh is from a Middle Eastern family and was raised as a Muslim. Some years ago he began to follow Jesus. Brian Newman is from a Jewish family outside New York City and also became a follower of Jesus as a young adult. Ashraf and Brian have struck up an unlikely friendship. They share life together as part of the Isaac-Ishmael Initiative.
We come from vastly different backgrounds, with the distinct understanding that “the other is my enemy.” To an Arab, any Jew is the enemy. To a Jew, any Arab is the enemy.
While these were our starting points as young men, thankfully they are not our end points.
Both of us find common ground and purpose in following Jesus — his ways, his teaching, his life, death and resurrection. This great and enduring Truth has brought us to care deeply for each other even as we perceive the world through different lenses.
When we both heard of Franklin Graham’s comments about Muslims in America and around the world, our hearts sank. Mr. Graham declared two things in particular that he wildly overstated and his imprudent pronouncements demand a response.
The first is this: “Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized — and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”
And the second statement is: “We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad.”
As a person from a Muslim background and another from a Jewish background, we want to address Mr. Graham’s statements.
1. Is it a fact that “every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized?”
There is certainly that potential, but the larger question is, WHY is this the case? Here are at least four reasons:
A. Cultural “whiplash” for Muslims coming to the West. Cultural norms in the West are dramatically different than in most of the Middle East and many Middle Easterners equate “Western” with “Christian.” To say the least, the West is over-sexualized, thanks to Hollywood movies and television. At the same time, many Muslims have never interacted with Christians before coming to the U.S. They encounter shows such as Friends, Cougar Town, Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City and they think, “This is what America is about AND this is Christian culture as well.”
Public images of nudity, scantily clad women, and crude language is bizarre and disorienting to people from the Middle East, for both Christians as well as Muslims! What is their response? The same as it is for many Christians who reject other cultures that seem immoral. Muslims retreat from American culture , and therefore from the culture they confuse with being “Christian.”
B. Churches uninvolved with Muslims: The large majority of churches in the U.S. are uninvolved with Muslims, or with people who at least “look” like Muslims. We are stunned by how many churches have disengaged from minorities, whether Muslims or Jews or others who do not believe as Christians do. A number of nominal Muslims end up going to the mosque on Fridays simply because they are not welcomed anywhere else.”
We who seek to follow Jesus fully must regain a heart for the “foreigner,” “alien,” and “immigrant.” It is an integral part of our calling as Christians. It is not a extracurricular activity.
C. Stereotyping and making broad generalizations: We do not know if Franklin Graham is friends with any Muslims, but we would guess that he is not. Why? Because he reinforces the stereotype that every Muslim and all Middle Easterners are the next Bin Laden or Zarkawi or other such terrorist. It is imperative that Christians begin to see Muslims as any other people who need to know Jesus personally.
D. The need to belong: Everyone wants to and needs to belong to a people or community. Many Muslims come from tribal cultures (as do Jews, by the way). Family and community shape their beliefs and worldview. Individualism has little place in their hearts and minds. By default they feel they need a group to be part of and where they feel they can belong. If a Muslim is not welcomed by Americans, and the Church does not embrace a Muslim immigrant to America, that person will create their own cultural bubble. They will shield themselves from the “foreigner” Americans. The Muslim (like all of us) looks for people who will accept him, for those who are reaching out to them and welcoming them into community. If Christians do not welcome Muslims, you can be sure that the small number of radicalized Muslims will do so.
2. Are we truly at war with Muslims? Mr. Graham stated: “We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad.” This raises serious questions for both of us from our different perspectives.
A. Many Middle Eastern countries constitutionally declare they are religious states. Islam is the official religion in Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Is Mr. Graham stating that the United States is at war with these Islamic countries?
If we are at war with Muslims, this must mean that the United States is denying its close relationship with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which practices some of the most repressive forms of Islam in the world. Most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi citizens. Did the U.S. go to war with Saudi after 9/11?
B. A second significant issue is what to do about the Christians who come from these “Muslim” countries. Ashraf is one such person. He grew up as a Muslim, became a Christian, and later immigrated to the United States. Is he still a Muslim simply because he holds a passport from a “Muslim” country? Are all Muslim-background believers therefore “ineligible” to be considered Christians because of their nationalities? The fact stands that most countries considered “Muslim” actually have a Christian population. It is time to come to terms that all Arabs are not Muslim.
C. Mr. Graham contends that Muslims wishing to come to America as immigrants should be denied entrance. What if the “shoe were on the other foot?” What would we say if an Imam in a Middle Eastern country lobbied their government to close their borders to all Christians? We wonder what Mr. Graham’s agency, Samaritan’s Purse, would do if it was not allowed into a country because of their beliefs. Is that discrimination?
Each of us who are followers of Jesus has a deeply personal question to ask ourselves: Do Christians in the West want Muslims to be introduced to Jesus and to follow him? Really. There are many, many Muslims who come to the West and have the first real opportunity in their lives to be introduced to the ways, the teaching, and the Kingdom of God through Jesus. Our question for us Christians is this: Are we advocating that we close this door to fruitful ministry? What about the many Muslims who come to the U.S. and accept Christ and follow him? Do we close this open door of ministry?
D. Both of us know personally the challenge of following Christ — either as someone from a Muslim background or Jewish background. Ashraf has been endangered in very real ways; Brian has been mocked and disowned by Jews. This spiritual warfare cannot impede what Jesus has called us to do.
That is why we are shocked by Mr. Graham’s public statements and how they may endanger missionaries and other Christians in Muslim countries. How will these Christians be treated by local people who read his derogatory comments about Muslims? Will missionaries have to defend your statements? Brash statements on social media such as Mr. Graham’s have damaged the mission of Christians in sensitive areas of the world.
We all have a crucial choice to make. We can live our lives based on fear, anger, and vengeance. Both of us (Ashraf as an Arab, Brian as a Jew) know how to live that way. We were raised to fear, hate, and to seek revenge.
And then Jesus changed everything, as he always does.
We are called to welcome, to seek to embrace the “other,” to learn to love where we would otherwise hate. Mr. Graham’s public platform is the perfect context to replace fear with love, to include rather than exclude. We hope he will lean into this calling.