What Muslims think of America
A Saudi-raised Pastor offers an insider’s perspective.
At 4.55, the minaret loudspeaker blared outside my window. I was in Damascus, visiting relatives, and hundreds of mosques all over the city were calling Muslims to the first of five daily prayers. Faithful Muslims weave these into their everyday lives. If they forget their duties in the midst of the details of life, muezzins from minarets throughout the Muslim world cry “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) at the appointed times to bring them back to this most basic of religious tasks.
Throughout the Middle East and in much of North Africa and lower Asia, Islam dominates the religious, cultural, and political landscape. While Islam is not monolithic, many in the Muslim world, particularly in the Mideast, see the U.S. as the stronghold of the “infidels,” who refuse to bow to Allah (the God whom Muslims believe rules over all creation), and who therefore must be opposed or even destroyed.
Where does this intense antipathy come from? Radical Muslims in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, and elsewhere regularly chant, “Death to America! Death to the Great Satan!” Some of this is posturing for CNN, but the fact that such chanting can take place indicates the brewing of a storm for which America is the tallest lightning rod. Why?
1. First, devout Muslims see the US as exporting immorality. The international marketing of our movies and TV programs paints a lurid picture of American life for the Third World. Viewers get their ideas of American life from The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas and Baywatch, so they assume that illicit sex, fast cars, guns, and intrigue are the norm here.
2. Second, Muslims see the United States’ foreign policy as a political puppet of Israel and American Jews. They see in our government’s positions over the past 5O years a blind support of a nation that most Muslims view as the cause of untold suffering among Arabs throughout the Middle East. A Syrian cousin of mine pointed to all the “Jewish-sounding” names in Cabinet-level and Congressional positions and declared, “The United States is in the pocket of the Jews”
3. Third, the American heart seems to Arabs to have an anti-Arab bias in both foreign policy and human rights issues. Muslims point to the cries of the Palestinians, not just over their displacement from their homeland, but over the ongoing oppression and violence they see them suffer under the rule of Israeli authorities. It is American planes, they say, that bomb their villages, and American helicopters that fire missiles into their apartment buildings, and American bulldozers that knock down their settlements, and American bullets that shatter their children’s skulls. One of my Syrian cousins declared to me with undeniable passion, “If I could go to occupied Palestine [Israel] and fight against the oppressors and give my life to help liberate Palestine, I would count it a privilege. I would count it an honor!”
4. Fourth, Muslims (especially non-Western ones) view the USA as a Christian nation, and so a powerful rival to their faith; Though we know there is no such thing as a Christian nation since God has not called us to a kingdom of this world, the Muslim mind cannot conceive of religion apart from political realities. For Islam the kingdom of Allah must in the end become the unrivaled kingdom of this world.
In many quarters of the world, there is a sense of jealousy among Muslims as they look at the military strength of America across the globe, the standard of living and technological advantages of our society – the freedoms and pioneering spirit – that characterize our way of life. American influence in the world translates for some Muslims into Christian advances into Muslim territory, which cannot be tolerated. Even worse is American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam and home of its holiest shrines.
5. Finally Islam is committed to the complete subjugation of the entire world to Allah. Though there is not consensus among Muslims concerning the use of force to advance Islam, there is unanimity concerning three fundamental principles: Islam is the one true religion, meant to be accepted universally; its ultimate goal is the establishment of a one-world theocracy where the laws of Islam (Sharia) become the laws of all societies; and all human beings will one day be either converted to Islam, subjugated under Muslim rule, or eliminated by the sword.
The term jihad, often translated “holy war” leads Americans to ask, “Is such violence sanctioned by Islam?” There is an intense debate in the Muslim world over how Islam’s enemies are to be conquered. Moderates claim terrorism has no place in Islam and point to a verse in the Quran that says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” But fundamentalists point to numerous texts in the Quran where Muhammad as Allah’s spokesman commands his followers to fight and subdue all who resist Islam, if necessary by killing them.
What leads Muslim men to volunteer for death, even young men with all their lives before them? Islam offers no certain hope of heaven to any of its adherents, with one exception. Those who die while fighting in a jihad are promised immediate access to Paradise, the highest level of heaven with the greatest sensual delights imaginable.
For those trapped in a religious system where you can never be sure you have done enough good to please God eternally, and whose lives amid poverty, oppression, and despair do not guarantee much of an earthly future, the assurance of a reward of eternal hedonism is undeniably attractive. Add to this the high tribute in the minds of the faithful left behind and the thought of being an underdog who in the name of Allah does grave damage to the Great Satan, and you have a recipe for conflagration.
How should Christians respond? Confidence and Love are the first two words that come to mind. Paul reminds us in 2 Tim 1:7, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” Jesus said that to live by the sword is to die by the sword. His followers are to love enemies and pray for those who engage in persecution.
Since our futures are secure in God’s hand because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we are not to fear those who threaten us, nor seek to destroy them. Rather, we are to approach them with the same love by which Jesus first approached and won us to Himself.
In the end, it is not a question of what Muslims think of America, or of Christians. It is much more a matter of what Christians think of Muslims. Will we extend them Christ’s love, the only real hope for peace and transformation, or will we turn away in fear or anger? The future is not in the hands either of Muslim terrorists or of Muslim moderates. It is in the hands of Jesus Christ, and He still calls the church to meet the world with grace and love. The next months and years will show whether we are listening.
MATEEN A. ELASS
Dr. Elass is senior pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Warrenville, Ill.. He was raised in Saudi Arabia and is an authority on world religions. This article appeared in Moody, November-December 2001. An expanded version of this article can be found at www.Moodymagazine.com
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