Christians and Muslims in North America: Some ABCs

An American friend who is an expert on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations recently served on a panel as the sole Christian representative. The first question he was asked: “Why do evangelicals hate Muslims?”

I’m sympathetic with the questioner. Some evangelicals do seem to hate Muslims, and not just in the United States. Right here in Moncton, a hijab-wearing young Muslim woman recently was called a “child of Satan” by a self-identified Christian.

Still, the question is obviously one-sided. Someone from northern Nigeria, acquainted with the atrocities of the Boko Haram, would ask the question in reverse. So let’s get a few things straight.

A. Islam is growing fast all around the world, and also here in North America. But there are still relatively few Muslims here. How few?

According to the 2011 National Household Survey (the closest poll we have now to the census, on which the government used to ask very useful questions about religion—don’t get me started) there were 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada, or about 3.2% of the population. Three per cent.

As for America, a 2017 study estimated that 3.45 million Muslims were living in the United States, about 1.1 percent of the total U.S. population. Yes: one per cent.

Why do there seem to be so many more? For three main reasons: (1) they tend to live in major centres; (2) those major centres are where the news media are concentrated; and (3) news media thrive on what’s new, so they tend to over-report novelty and under-report continuity, such as the fact that the vast majority of North Americans remain Christian, sort-of Christian, used-to-be-Christian, and not-Christian-but-shaped-largely-by-Christian-values.

Islam is growing rapidly, but it’s still a tiny presence here.

B. Not all Muslims want to impose shariah, but many do—including some in North America

Shariah is the Arabic term for Islamic law, but, not unlike the category of torah in the Hebrew Bible, the idea is much broader than mere official legislation. It’s more like “God-given guidelines for optimal living.”

Since Muslims believe that living according to the Word of God is better than not living according to the Word of God, most of them wish that everyone would live according to the Word of God. And if not everyone will convert to Islam, then the next best thing is for the main institutions and values of society to be conducted according to God’s Word.

(Not incidentally, does that concern sound familiar? Like what many North American Christians want, too?)

Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, some Muslims really do want shariah to come as soon as possible. I remember sitting in a major conference on religion and the media held at the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa two decades ago reading a pamphlet. It had been prepared by the local Islamic society specifically for that event. In this pamphlet—intended to improve secular media coverage of Islam, mind you—was the straightforward recognition that Muslims typically prefer every society, including this society, to be governed by shariah—for the mutual good, of course, of everyone in that society.

That’s just basic Islam, and over the course of Islamic history it has been unusual for Muslims not to have wanted shariah to be the law of the land.

C. Still, many North American Muslims decidedly do not want shariah here. That’s why they’re here. They have experienced an Islamic regime and they have left it. So when we recognize that some of our Muslims neighbours aspire to enjoying the rule of shariah in North America, at least someday, we must remember that many other Muslims have gladly fled one or another version of shariah and will resist it coming here as stoutly as anyone else.

D. Any proper account of Muslim-Christian relations must not start with the Crusades. The actual history starts, of course, not with the Crusades (beginning in the late eleventh century) but with the previous several centuries: with Islamic conquests of Christian-majority areas around the Mediterranean, Islamic pirates murderously disrupting shipping on the Med, and Islamic raiding parties enslaving Christians all around the coast of Europe (as far north as Britain).

Most Muslims, in my experience, don’t know any more about this history than Christians do–namely, a very selective and usually self-serving version. Our co-religionists have in fact treated each other just as human beings generally have done in similar situations. There’s nothing particularly Islamic or Christian in most of these episodes. Moreover, there have been commendable occasions of Islamic-Christian cooperation here and there in history that have indeed transcended the usual way human groups treat each other.

Once we have that history more clear, without either side assuming a position of moral superiority, we can start working out how we’re going to be neighbours together here and now.

E. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Having studied and taught Islam for a few decades now, I hereby declare that No, they don’t—except in the cases where it seems that they do. (For more on that controversial question, please click here.)

F, G, and the Rest: There’s much more to the alphabet, and much more for us to learn about the rich, complicated, and sometimes dark history of Christian-Muslim encounter. We will do better, however, if we recognize at least that it has been and continues to be a complex encounter—

—and also, in one crucial respect, that it’s not. “Love your neighbour” is pretty simple, and utterly unavoidable. We Christians are not allowed to hate our neighbours. Any of them. We instead must, ever and always, seek their welfare. God says so.

That’s not a principle taught in any other religion, so we Christians bear a special ethical burden. Of all people, therefore, we should be distinguished by our love, not our hatred, for Muslims here and abroad.

I don’t think we’re there yet. And some clearer thinking won’t solve the problem by itself, of course. But it’s a start.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).