With recent history in mind, it can be tempting to write off Muslims as wholly “other” and to want nothing to do with them. But this is a path that neither their role as fellow image bearers nor the biblical call to restore all things will permit us to take.
In the 18 years since the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly three thousand Americans, Islam has gone mainstream. Eighty-nine percent of the 3.45 million Muslims in America say they are proud to be a Muslim and an American. Now, it isn’t strange to see the fast of Ramadan broken with an iftar dinner hosted by the White House or by Muslim members of Congress.
Fear of Muslims, however, has yet to abate. Sparked by numerous terrorist attacks from home-grown and imported holy warriors, “Islamophobia” remains a thing, with anti-Muslim incidents hitting levels not seen since 2001. This year a Baptist pastor in Michigan who calls himself an Islamophobe organized an event called “9/11 Forgotten? Is Michigan Surrendering to Islam?” before canceling it following an outcry.
New research from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an American Muslim organization, finds that only 35 percent of evangelicals and 44 percent of Protestants know a Muslim—compared with 53 percent of the general public, 61 percent of Catholics, and 76 percent of Jews.
And relationships with American Muslims—or the lack of same—really do matter. “The personal relationships with Muslims, that’s a game changer,” Todd Green, Luther College professor and former Islamophobia adviser to the U.S. State Department, told Christianity Today and the Washington Post. “It tends to make you less Islamophobic.”
Only 21 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of Muslims. But that ratio jumps to nearly one in two among those who know a Muslim. Just 20 percent of white evangelicals hold favorable views of Muslims, along with 44 percent unfavorable. Only 35 percent of white evangelicals, according to Pew Research, even know a Muslim, the lowest of any religious group. LifeWay Research says that a mere 17 percent of those with evangelical beliefs report having a Muslim friend.
Surprisingly, Muslim Americans appear to be more open to evangelicals than the reverse. Half of those surveyed say they have “no opinion” when it comes to evangelicals, while a third has a favorable opinion. Only 14 percent have a negative view of evangelicals.
So these statistics point to an opportunity, if not an open invitation, for kingdom-minded believers to reach out in friendship to the 1 percent of the U.S. population that claims to follow Islam. Perhaps, rather than responding in fear, in faith we can take a meal to the new family on our street, or visit the neighborhood mosque that just opened its doors, without compromising our witness in the least.
Can we be Good Samaritans to those who need the good news? How will these men, women, boys, and girls, created in God’s image, hear, unless someone is sent to them? Tragically, those who have the living water they so desperately need are among those least likely to go to them, or even to know them.
The need is no less urgent overseas, where Christians can face the loss of life or livelihood from Muslim authorities and neighbors. According to Open Doors USA, of the ten worst persecuting countries of Christians, seven are run by Muslims. But, thank God, the Spirit is already working around the globe to draw Muslims to Himself.
Southern Baptist researcher and author David Garrison heard encouraging reports of Muslims becoming followers of Jesus Christ and decided to investigate. “Something was happening—even as Christianity was on the wane in many Western countries and vanishing from its roots in much of the Middle East, a wind was blowing through the House of Islam,” Garrison said in Newsweek. “By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, reports of large-scale conversions of Muslims to the Christian faith were surfacing in many corners of the ‘House of Islam.’”
Garrison visited forty-four such voluntary movements to Christ of at least a thousand people in twenty-nine Muslim countries from West Africa to Indonesia, in the process conducting more than a thousand interviews. He learned there were sixty-nine such movements flourishing around the world as of 2013, compared with only three such movements in Islam’s first twelve centuries.
Garrison cites a number of factors: (1) increased prayer for Muslims; (2) intentional evangelism toward Muslims; and (3) more Bible translations in colloquial languages spoken by Muslims. Other factors, surprisingly enough, include new, more understandable translations of the Qur’an, which cause many Muslims to see their religion clearly and long for something different; Muslim violence, such as the Iranian revolution, which prompts many to decide there must be something better; and, for many, the appearance of Jesus Christ in a dream.
Regarding dissatisfaction with Islam, CBN quotes an Iranian intelligence official as admitting that Christianity continues to spread in the Islamic Republic.
“These converts are ordinary people whose jobs are selling sandwiches or similar things,” Mahmoud Alavi reportedly said. “We had no choice but to summon them to ask them why they were converting. Some of them said they were looking for a religion that gives them peace. We told them that Islam is the religion of brotherhood and peace. They responded by saying that: ‘All the time we see Muslim clerics and those who preach from the pulpit talk against each other. If Islam is the religion of cordiality, then before anything else, there must be cordiality and peace among the clerics themselves.’”
And as one Muslim convert along the Syrian-Turkish border told NBC News, “If heaven is made for ISIS and their belief, I would choose hell for myself instead of being again with them in the same place, even if it’s paradise.”
So while there are undeniable challenges in reaching Muslims with the good news in a post-9/11 world, there are undeniable opportunities.
Let’s take them.
Stan Guthrie is a life coach and a licensed minister, as well as an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of the forthcoming book Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.