In Christianity, the principle is that if you share the Gospel and plant the seeds of belief, and set a good example of what a Christian is supposed to be, others will want that love, grace, peace and joy for themselves, and convert. Belief is supposed to be by free choice, with no adverse consequences for those who do not believe. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Also: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). This doesn’t mean unbelievers are stupid — they just don’t know the Gospel, and Christians need to get out there and tell them about Jesus and what the Gospel means. We are supposed to let the love of Christ shine through us (1 Corinthians 16:14; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 4:12). The Bible promises us that someday, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” that Jesus is God and our eternal Judge (Romans 14:11). The picture that is painted is one of global unity in Christ, with all divisions between people melting away.
Muslims believe that, too — only the God Who will be in charge is Allah, not Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus Christ exposed false religion in opposing the Greek and Roman paganism and the hypercritical Pharisees of His day, Muhammad stood up against idolatry and paganism. But the two religious heroes have starkly different messages about who God really is, and how to win others to Him. In contrast to the nonviolent strategy of spreading Christianity, it is OK to fight, rape and kill people who will not convert, if you act in the cause of Islam, according to the Qur’an. It is OK to squeeze out non-Muslims or subjugate them, crushing dissent, even to the point of enslaving “infidels.” And it is NOT OK to blend your views, lifestyle, behavior and even your mode of dress with those of non-Muslims. In fact, if you leave Islam behind for some other faith, you can rightfully be killed for your apostasy.
It is important to note that “Islam” means “submission.” The main goal of the religious system is dominance.
Islam is, indeed, about unity, and Muhammad did a marvelous job of uniting an amazing, multicultural group out of warring tribes, pagans, Christians and Jews in Arabia. But in the seventh century in that location, it was fairly easy based on straightforward battle strategy, force vs. force, because everything was tribal. There really weren’t any fixed national borders or national sovereignty in that region, no organized governments to upset and take over, no imperative to compromise or come to a consensus. If an Islamic group beat your group in battle, you would become Muslim, or die, or subjected to second-class citizenship and a cruel poll tax, or enslaved. As Islam spread from people group to people group, it absorbed the cultures into Islam and formed a collective whole. Society was under the Qur’an and the supplemental rules for living as Muhammad modeled, the Hadith (which includes the Sunnah, or “path,” a collection of traditions based on Muhammad’s conduct and sayings) and following sharia law as interpreted by the imans, or leaders. In some places, such as Egypt, longstanding faith groups such as the Coptic Christians were tolerated to a lesser and greater degree over the centuries. But mostly, there was unity under Islam.
Islam is like a blanket with every thread the same, or thereabouts. In contrast, Christianity is like a patchwork quilt, with every “section” (every nation and every denomination) fairly distinct, but joined together by the “threads” of belief in the Bible and Jesus Christ.
The emphasis on submitting to Allah that is repeatedly in the Qur’an is enforced with several exhortations to fight unbelievers:
“Those who reject Islam must be killed. If they turn back (from Islam), take (hold of) them and kill them wherever you find them. . . .” (Qur’an, Surah 4:89)
“So, when you meet (as in fight — jihad in Allah’s Cause) those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly (on them, i.e. take them as captives).” (Qur’an 47:4)
“O you who believe! fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you; and know that Allah is with those who are Al-Muttaqun (the pious).” (Surah 9:123)
“Let not the Unbelievers think that they can get the better (of the godly): they will never frustrate them. Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom you may not know, but whom Allah knows.” (Surah 8:59-60)
Islam’s tribal roots explain a lot of the fierce pride that is taken in its Arabic beginnings. In fact, in mosques all over the world, prayers are said in Arabic even though it’s not the local language.
When Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, he brought with him the concept of nationalism in one’s homeland, which came to be called wataniyya. The French only ruled for three years, but their influence was vast. Besides the homeland patriotism ideas, the French brought the printing press and newspapers to Egypt, making it the communications hub and thus the political center of the Arab world. For the first time, the “tribes” had more in common than their religion.
When the British kicked out the French in order to protect the Suez Canal, their key link to India, which was completed in 1876, the Egyptians fought the British for decades off and on to establish self-rule. Finally, in 1952, the army ousted the last monarch in Egypt, King Farouk. Under Col. Gamal Abdul-Nasser, whose name means “servant of God,” Egypt started an assertive new political nationalism that was focused more on Arab supremacy over western influences.
Like wataniyya, pride in your own country, that Arab-centered pride was powerful. It came to be called qawmiyya and it strongly opposed any semblance of control over Arab states by colonial powers such as Britain, France and Italy. Under Abdul-Nasser and qawmiyya, Egypt drifted into Arab socialism, with an accent on modernizing Egyptian society and building up its military. This was made possible by the embarrassment of the defeat of the Turks in World War I, the Ottoman Empire’s glory petering out, and losing on the battlefield to Israel in the 1948 war. There was much angst over the perception that the power and glory that used to belong to Islam had passed on to the Christian West and to the hated foe, Israel.
That’s where the new push for Islamic dominance comes from: pride in Islam’s honor and anticolonialism. This is why we have to think of the Middle East as having “pan-Arabic” pride — pride in every square inch of land held in Muslim hands — explaining why our forays into Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait and Iraq were hated so very much, even if, from the American point of view, we were the “good guys.” It’s why Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims can hate each other because their doctrines are different, but join together in hating the West because of its former colonial dominance in their region. It’s why trying to establish an Arab state in Palestine is a unifying force in the Arab world, and hating Israel became the Politically Correct common denominator of Muslim-majority nations.
Observers believe the failure of the 20 or so Arab nations to come together economically with a common market or NATO-style alliance spelled their eventual frustration and failure. When Israel beat them again in the 1967 war, the trend started to leave outright nationalism and return to a “pan-Islam” point of view — making Islam supreme and a powerful uniting force for the Middle East and the world.
Probably because of mass media, people in the Middle East now form a negative opinion of the West, thinking that we are corrupt, materialistic, sexually immoral, uncaring about human life (abortion), depraved about disrespecting the family unit, shuffling the elderly off to live separately, and many other stereotypes that often have the ring of truth to them.
Meanwhile, Muslims believe that they are very religious, following the truth while Christians are deceived, and that they are enlightened while we are stuck in a lie.
How to share the Gospel under those circumstances? It is difficult . . . though by no means impossible. And therein lies our hope.