About a month ago, during the Euro Cup, I was impressed reading a few pieces in the press about Mesut Özil, an extremely talented Muslim soccer player who often opens his palms in prayer during stoppages in play and reads the Koran before matches. I saw a quote from him saying, “I’d rather not play football again than to not fast in Ramadan,” even though I later found out that during the Euro Cup he took advantage of the dispensation to move fast days if you’re traveling. For those of you who don’t watch soccer, Özil is likely the best playmaker in the world right now, creating more scoring opportunities than any other player in the five major European leagues last year, and breaking the 1 year record in that regard for the English Premiere League by a clean dozen.
Özil even shows certain acts of charity he links back to his Muslim faith and family upbringing like paying for operations for 23 sick children after the World Cup in Brazil and regularly paying for disabled children to come watch his games in London. I believe him 100% when he talks about how positive influence Islam is had on his life. In fact, I’d considered writing a whole article on him titled “The Muslim Tim Tebow.”
Even though I’d love for him to convert to Catholicism, I can see him fitting perfectly into what Vatican II said about Muslims:
The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. (Nostra Aetate 3)
(FYI: Özil plays for Arsenal in league play and Germany in international competitions because he grew up there to Turkish parents. If you haven’t guessed from my comments or my last name, I cheer for Germany in international soccer – Canada barely has a team. On the other hand, I don’t have enough time or interest to watch league soccer)
Then, this week we hear about two other Muslims who broke into a church in Normandy, stopping Mass, taking the people hostage, pulling the priest aside, make Father kneel down, slicing into Pere Jacques Hamel’s throat, screaming in Arabic, proclaiming their loyalty to the Islamic State, and videotaping it all, just to glorify how they see Islam. Even though they qualify for most of what that paragraph from Vatican II about Muslims says, they fail due to the last line of morality and worshiping God through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
These are two radically different views of Islam and it’s foolhardy to claim all Muslims fit into the first group or all Muslims fit into the second group. I think we need a nuanced view that neither condemns all Muslims as Islamists nor assumes that there are no Islamists. I use “Islamist” because that seems to be the clearest distinction for those Muslims who believe in a radical ideology that is violent towards the west and even other Muslims who disagree.
Since the murder in France, a friend shared a video of Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim apologist, pointing out that the majority of Muslims don’t support it. I think that’s great. Yet the problem is there are a large number that do. In fact Pew said that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of worldwide Muslims support suicide bombing which is a decent base level for distinguishing the Islamist philosophy from peaceful and charitable Muslims. Assuming that standard, there are between 150,000,000 and 300,000,000 Islamists worldwide. You cannot just ignore a violent ideology so prevalent.
We have to see that there are good and bad Muslims just like there are good and bad Christians. I’m about halfway through reading the Koran (I’d planned to read it through earlier this year then other things came up and it fell down my priority list), and I can see where these two interpretations of Islam might come from. Despite good and bad Christians, I don’t use “Christianist” because any Christian group would have to claim violence in spite of being Christian while Muslims can claim violence because they are Muslims. Tariq Ramadan, in the video cited above, claims that most Muslims “Say this [terrorism or ISIS] has nothing do with our religion.” I’m glad they do, Mr. Ramadan, but I don’t see how you can claim it is not possible to link it to your religion when the violent acts of Mohammed are so well known and you have no central authority to say that Islamists interpret the Koran wrong. In fact, a well-reasoned article a year ago from The Atlantic pointed out how vigilant, almost scrupulous, ISIS was in following the Koran and early Muslim tradition.
We need to look at how Muslim apologists like Mr. Ramadan approach violence in the name of their religion vs. how Christian apologists like myself approach violence in the name of their religion. The Christian apologists use reason to show how the Bible doesn’t really mean what this rogue violent Christian had interpreted to mean while the Muslim apologists seem to just dogmatically say that the violent Muslim has nothing do with Islam. For example after the shooting at a Planned Parenthood, I wrote about how this goes against all pro-life principles. If a Muslim apologist explained why violence like that committed against Fr Jacques Hamel is not the correct interpretation of the Koran showing other verses using reason and good rules of interpretation, they would not only help Christians to separate Islamists from good Muslims but they would help Muslims avoid Islamism.
Here lies the nub of the problem. Christianity has accepted the help of philosophy and reason to understand itself: John Paul II wrote a whole encyclical on how both faith and reason help us understand truth (Fides et Ratio), especially when used together. Islam on the other hand has, for the most part, rejected reason as an aid to understand the Koran and has decided on a literalist and unphilosophic interpretation of the Koran. As Christians we can talk about the literary forms in the Bible or understand what the author intended to mean with a more limited vocabulary. For example when we read, “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress,” (Psalm 18:2) we can understand that God is not a literal rock or fortress but this is a poetic way of saying that God is secure and that God protects us. For Muslims, however the Koran is eternal as God’s very thoughts so using such analysis is very difficult.
Surely, many modern Muslims in the Western world, especially scholars like Tariq Ramadan who teaches at Oxford, use reason to understand the Koran. That way they can understand what the dark passages of the Koran mean just like we understand dark passages of the Bible like 1 Samuel 15 where it appears that God commands genocide. Applying such reason to the Koran would be a great step forward: helping decrease Islamist influence, facilitating peace between the two cultures, allowing a rational dialogue of faith, and helping Muslims practice virtue. (There may be some conversions to Christianity – when you apply reason to the Koran and the Bible, the Bible stands up much better – but if we want Muslim cooperation let’s focus on converting Islamists from violence first.)
Let’s all pray for peace between Christians and Muslims, and let’s help Muslims use reason to win over the Islamists from their violent ideology. If we don’t win them over from such an ideology, I fear incidents like those tragic ones with Fr Jacques Hamel will become an all-too-common occurrence.