The Challenge of Islamic Fundamentalism for Christians

Article excerpt

A brief visit to Egypt in the late 1970s, en route to a WCC-sponsored meeting on Christian-Muslim dialogue, gave me the opportunity of visiting Coptic friends in el-Faiyum, a town some fifty miles southwest of Cairo where about a third of the population is Christian. Their quizzical interest in the conference I was about to attend revealed a measure of skepticism. Is there any possibility of dialogue with Muslims, they asked, when the skeikh of their local mosque was preaching fire and damnation against the Egyptian government, Christianity, and the West?(1) The name of this feisty preacher meant nothing to me at the time. But in recent months he has been bandied around the Western press an "Egypt's Khomeini...from Jersey City": Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, spiritual leader of the Al-Salam Mosque in Jersey City,(2) allegedly the ideologue behind the bomb outrage in New York's World Trade Center.

Since the early 1970s Sheikh Rahman has been an outspoken critic of successive Egyptian governments--likening Nasser to Pharoah, condoning Sadat's assassination, and condemning Mubarak as a pawn of U.S. interests. As an amir(3) of the radical Jama' at al-Muslimin group,(4) he justified militancy against Muslims whom he judged to be unbelievers.(5) He was arrested several times in Cairo, was refused permission to enter Saudi Arabia, and, after a year's haven in Sudan, finally came to the United States.

My Coptic friends' questioning of what kind of relationship they can foresee with Islam in light of the sheikh's fulminations is but one example of apprehensions widespread among Christians living in Muslim-dominated societies in the Middle East and in other parts of Asia and Africa. Similar questions are being asked by Christians in the West, nervous that what is termed "Islamic fundamentalism" will take root in Western societies where Muslim communities are growing.(6) The continuing Rushdie affair is a reminder that our "global village" is full of contradictions that make it at uncertain and dangerous place to live.(7)

It is the concern of this essay to wrestle with these questions in search for a sense of Christian relationship with Islam that will be realistic as well optimistic. In this regard the cautionary advice of an international group of Reformed Church Christians may help orientate our perspective: "Contemporary Christian stereotype of Islamization reflect three tendencies which militate against dialogue: sensationalism particularly in the mass media which oversimplifies complex realities; essentialism which tends to cast Islam as a monolithic religion and view all Muslims as the same; and extremism which regards all Muslims as fundamentalist with the implication that they are dogmatic, reactionary, and anti-modernist."(8)

Islamic Stereotypes in Recent Literature

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979 there has been a spate of journalistic-cum-academic literature on Islamic fundamentalism.(9) Critical appraisal of a selection of these books makes it abundantly clear that Christians have no monopoly on the stereotyping of Islam. The repertoire of conceptual interpretations has become standardized around the themes in the following sections.

Islamic Fundamentalism's Immanent Hegemony

An early example of prediction that Islamic fundamentalists are poised to take over the Muslim world is found in Militant Islam by the Indian-born British journalist Godfrey Jansen. Writing in the shadow of the Iranian revolution, he portrayed fundamentalism as the most potent force within the contemporary Muslim world, rooted in its Islamic past, successful in Iran and Pakistan, and "well placed to come to power ... in Egypt and the Sudan in the near future, and in Indonesia in the not too distant future."(10)

At the time of publication many people found these prophecies credible, but a decade of hindsight shows them to have been overstated. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, remains committed to a constitution based on the pancasila principles of socioreligious pluralism. …