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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Christians Looking into Islam: Ten Ways to Respond

Peter Riddell is Professorial Dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Melbourne School of Theology in Australia.

My two previous Insight articles identified a number of features which characterize Islam and its followers in the modern world.1 In this third article, I will suggest ten ways (in no particular order of importance) that Christians can respond to those features of Islam:

  1. To avoid stereotyping Muslims, Christians should learn about the different theological, social, and political groupings in Islam. For instance, while some Muslims support the Taliban, others, such as Harvard’s Kanan Makiya, call these radicals “Islam’s Ku Klux Klan.”2 Furthermore, businessmen dealing with Saudi Arabia must negotiate the passageways of Shariah law, while the Commercial Code of Kuwait is virtually indistinguishable from that of the West.3 And while Iran’s President Ahmadinejad mutters death threats against Israel, Jordan’s King Abdullah stands “shoulder to shoulder” with the West in the war against terror.4 From sector to sector, the differences are striking.

  2. Given the absence of deeply rooted democratic traditions within Muslim countries, Christians should support efforts by Western governments and certain Muslim advocacy and dissident groups, both within and outside the Muslim world, who are trying to establish democratic political systems in Muslim countries. Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam group is a case in point; their website features a number of progressive materials and initiatives.5 The task seems massive, but the winds of democratic change are blowing through the Middle East in response to external pressures.

  3. We also considered the presence in the Muslim world of competing centers of authority, such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Shi’ite leadership in Iran, and individual scholars. The Church should establish and maintain direct contact with Islamic authority centers at both international and local levels which are more open to democratic institutions, pluralist traditions, and non-Muslim perspectives. When voices such as the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain distance themselves from radical Islam, Christians should offer thanks to them as a beginning for conversation.6

  4. Some argue that the roots of radical Islam lie in Western foreign policy, while others point to the content of Islamic sacred scripture and a literal approach to that scripture by radical Muslim scholars. Christians should speak out boldly in support of the latter view. The rise in terror carried out by radical Muslims in recent years is directly connected with certain parts of the Islamic sacred books: the Qur’an and Hadith. For instance, in urging enmity with the U.S., the militant group al-Muhajiroun, cites Sura 9:41 of the Qur’an for its warrant.7 Unjust blame for the West deflects attention from the need for Muslims to address those parts of their sacred texts which nourish Islamist radicals.

  5. A key feature of radical Islam is its call for widespread implementation of Islamic Shariah law found throughout the Muslim world, demonstrated particularly by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Christians should read about the spread of more extreme expressions of Islamic Shariah law in many parts of the Muslim world and stand with those trying to resist this spread.8 Among those on the battle lines are the Christians in southern Nigeria, alarmed at increasingly militant Muslim culture in the north.9

  6. We also referred to modernizing Muslims, in terms of their responses to Islamic radicalism and their more rationalist approaches to reading sacred texts. Christians should encourage modernizing Muslims to articulate a more self-critical approach to their texts, to move beyond the “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra. Canada’s Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today, is one such courageous reformer.10

  7. Christians must respond to widespread negative stereotyping of the West, Christianity, and Judaism in many sections of the international and local Muslim media, as well as Muslim educational materials. Some attention has been paid to this problem, though it is ad hoc and insufficient.11 While Western countries are under self-imposed pressure to minimize negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims,12 Muslim countries are doing little to address their own negative attitudes toward non-Muslims. The most outrageous claims circulate freely—such as that Western men are happy for their wives to be strippers and prostitutes13 and that Jews planned the attacks of 9/11.14 Christians can act by discussing such slander with Muslim contacts, supporting those groups who are active in this area, and encouraging politicians to address this. And believers can also point to the many technological and medical contributions the West has introduced to Muslim culture.

  8. Christians in the West must actively and energetically advocate on behalf of their fellow Christians suffering discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority locations. They can do this by speaking out individually as well as supporting those advocacy organizations campaigning in this area, e.g., International Christian Concern ( Christian minorities must not be allowed to feel abandoned where they are experiencing discrimination and persecution in Muslim lands.

  9. Muslim ghettos in Christian countries (e.g., in England’s Leicester, Birmingham, and Bradford)15 tend to nourish attitudes and practices which would not be considered acceptable among the majority: e.g., treatment of women, attitudes toward and intimidation of non-Muslims, xenophobic political opinions. Christians have a duty to challenge such values and practices and must not accept a culture of political correctness which protects minority groups from being subject to critical scrutiny.

  10. Also deriving from the rise of closed Muslim communities in the West, Christians must be willing to enter debates about immigration, affirming the importance of welcoming the stranger while at the same time arguing for immigration policies that contribute to, not undermine, social cohesion. For this to happen, immigration policies must certainly not be based on racial factors. However, they should take account of difficult mixes of ideologies, including religious faiths, which if handled carelessly can result in major sectarian strife as seen recently in France and Australia.16

Christians should be ready to engage with Muslims in diverse ways, in recognition of (a) the diverse gifts and abilities of Christians and (b) the considerable diversity among Muslims. So there should be room in the Christian-Muslim engagement for dialogue of various forms, apologetics and debates, as well as evangelism and mission. In the process, Christians should build bridges with Muslims where values and attitudes are shared, especially on matters of ethics such as pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives should be supported where they allow for a genuine two-way engagement and critique of both faiths, not just Christianity.

Christian engagement with Muslims should be done without arrogance, but with confidence, reflecting Christ’s own engagement with people of diverse backgrounds.


See Part IV & V of this series, "Muslims Looking Inwards: Issues of Debate among Muslims" & "Muslims Looking Outwards: Attitudes towards Non-Muslims."


Kanan Makiya, “Fighting Islam’s Ku Klux Klan,” The Observer (London), October 7, 2001, quoted in Peter G. Riddell and Peter Cotterell, Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 190.


William Ballantyne, quoted in Norman Anderson, Islam in the Modern World: A Christian Perspective (Leicester: Apollo, 1990), 113.


Riddell and Cotterell, 187.


Consider, for example, the postings at Sisters in Islam Website, (accessed February 13, 2006).


Riddell and Cotterell, 185.


Ibid., 165-166.


Cf. Paul Marshall, ed. Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari’a Law (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).


Dan Isaacs, “Islam in Nigeria: Simmering Tensions,” BBC News Website, September 24, 2003, (accessed February 13,  2006).


Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003).


See, for example, The Westophobia Report:  Anti-Western and Anti-Christian Stereotyping in British Muslim Publications, Centre for Islamic Studies, London Bible College, 1999; and “Saudi Government Must Eradicate Hate Rhetoric in Textbooks,” Senator Schumer: Official Senate Website, March 4, 2003, (accessed February 13, 2006).


See the American Textbook council’s report, Gilbert Sewall, “Islam and the Textbooks,” American Textbook Council, February 2003, (accessed February 13, 2006).


Riddell and Cotterell, 159.


Ibid., 161-162.


Jan Jun, “U.K.: Asian Muslim Ghettos Keep Growing, Hindering Integration,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Website, September 12, 2005, (accessed February 13, 2006).


Cf.  Peter Riddell, “France Is Still Right about Race Integration,” Church Times Website,;  and Peter Riddell, “Religion, Not Just Race, Stirs, the Riots,” Church Times Website, (accessed February 13, 2006).