Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Whose definition…

The Queen of Jordan recently suggested dropping the “I” from ISIS. Remember that ISIS are those murdering thugs, now self-styled “The Islamic State”, who’ve taken over some Iraqi and Syrian territory, then released beheading videos, hoping to appear more menacing than they are. The Queen’s point is that “I” stands for Islamic, but they shouldn’t be granted the title. They’re simply bloody extremists, to her, undeserving of the honor of her faith.

Her comments dovetail a recent, related debate in American media and politics. People wondered- Is calling these terrorists “Islamic” accurate and helpful, or distracting and wrong? Some argued, “They call themselves Islamic, claim religious motivation. Let’s be precise.” Others said, “Negative stereotypes that ‘all-Muslims-are-terrorists’ persist. Calling ISIS Islamic feeds that fear, giving terrorists what they want.” All fair points to consider.

But the Jordanian Queen is a Muslim leader, no outside prognosticator. She’s influential across many Muslim communities, which made me pay closer attention. Although, honestly, I’ve heard similar comments from other Muslims about ISIS, and Muslim terrorists generally. Friends from the mosque near our church have adamantly told me, “There’s no room in Islam for terrorism! A terrorist cannot be a Muslim. Whatever s/he claims, s/he’s kafir.” FYI, that Arabic word translates into “unbeliever” or “apostate.” And one practice in some parts of Islamic tradition is takfir, i.e. one Muslim declaring another Muslim kafir (not truly Muslim). That’s basically what Jordan’s Queen did- practiced takfir by defining ISIS as un-Islamic.

If that sounds like the Christian practice of excommunication, you’re paying attention! And from my limited understanding (obviously, I’m no Islamic scholar), takfir is as varied and technical for Muslims as excommunication is for Christians. The proper takfir method varies across diverse Muslim communions. Likewise, Christian folk describe how and why they excommunicate (in Disciples parlance- disfellowship) differently than neighbor churches, if they have an answer at all. Besides, for some Christians that practice has become less formal than before. And more widespread. Nowadays, many believers don’t wait for the rigorous discipline of a church council or the pronouncement of learned theologians, to inform them who counts as “Christian” or not. They simply observe folk who believe different, or behave (what they’d call) badly and say, “You’re not Christian.”

So I felt a disconnect after listening to Jordan’s Queen. Part of me thought, “She’s Muslim. She knows much better than me about Islam.” Another part thought, “But if she were Christian, I’d disagree.” After all, it’s fundamental to my Disciples identity that I have no ability to define others’ religion for them. “No Creed but Christ.” So if you claim you’re Christian, I won’t deny it. Even if I consider your theology deplorable. That’s not to say I’d accept, for instance, an unrepentant abortion clinic bomber joining our church. I’d resign if our Board allowed that. Nevertheless, I won’t say s/he is un-Christian. S/he’s a terrible Christian, wildly mistaken about Jesus, will likely face a pissed-off God after death, but I don’t believe anyone has the power or right to personally define Christianity.

Which frames my thinking on this ISIS/Islamic State debate. Firstly, they’re bad people. I hope they’re stopped. But that’s a task, primarily, for their co-religionists. Non-Muslim Westerners don’t have the capacity to end this struggle, whatever our military prowess (i.e. I wouldn’t support another invasion). Because much of that struggle is about identity- political, economic and religious. And though she’s disgusted by it, because her theology is FAR superior, to my mind Jordan’s Queen is a co-religionist with ISIS. Just as we’re related to Christian terrorists, and therefore have a special responsibility to condemn their behavior, while disseminating a better way.

Perhaps it’s unfair for me to map my faith convictions on how Muslims define Islam. I simply think that the more we practice identifying who’re right or wrong, who’s in or out, the more we feed that us v. them, believer v. heathen mentality that animates ISIS’s brutality. We don’t have the full truth- anyone- but the truth we do confess is better than gangsters who slaughter whole communities, saying, “You’re takfir, unbelievers, so you die.”

Goodness will only win if a better way is shown.

Grace and Peace,
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