Muslim Missions: Then & Now
Ten years ago, my wife, Roberta, and I were in Peshawar, Pakistan, two blocks from the Taliban hospital. We were in the home of our son and his family, joining in a farewell party for a Christian pilot. Another pilot approached us and said, "I don't know whether I should tell you the news now or after the party." Of course we said, "Now." He said the BBC had just reported that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
A quick check on the Internet showed a little picture of a building with a quarter inch of a flame—one that radiated heat and light through the following decade to where we stand today. That heat and light have generated conflicting responses: increased resistance and receptivity to the gospel among Muslims, and increased hostility and peacemaking among Christians. It has been the best of times and the worst of times for relations between Christians and Muslims.
Of course, the roots of Muslim resistance to Christianity go back to some of the earliest encounters with Christians, but tensions have increased significantly during the past century. Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood reacted to the secular and Christian culture introduced by European colonizers and missionaries. I met with leaders of the outlawed Brotherhood in Egypt during the late 1970s, and it was evident that while some were peaceful and some were militant, all felt that secular Islam was their primary enemy. By 9/11, some offshoots began focusing on the "distant enemy": economic, military, and political centers in New York and Washington. The subsequent televised pictures of non-Muslim bombs dropping on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan elicited further Muslim hostility toward the "crusading West."
Opposition to Christian witness intensified in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2010, when Muslim converts to Christ were imprisoned and threatened with the death penalty. In Pakistan, Muslim converts to Christ were imprisoned for apostasy; they were later released—and then killed on the street. This past year in Pakistan, both the Muslim governor of the Punjab region and the Christian minister of minority affairs were murdered just for opposing the law against apostasy.
On the other hand, more rigid or militant forms of Islam often increase receptivity to the gospel. This happened during the Khomeini Shiite revolution in Iran in 1979 (22 years before 9/11) and the Sunni Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that facilitated 9/11. In fact, Iran and Afghanistan reveal a broader pattern: Whenever Muslim governments have adopted a militant type of Islam or have tried to impose a form of Shari'ah law—and where there has been a local example of an alternate, friendly Christian presence—Muslims are attracted to the gospel. But persecution often follows.
The receptivity has also been particularly noticeable when Muslim factions are at odds—such as the Mujahideen militias after they had driven the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and the herdsmen and villagers in Darfur. Such hostilities and their resultant migrations, natural disasters in Bangladesh and Aceh, and ethnic resurgence among the Kabyle Berbers in North Africa have all led to an increased receptivity to the gospel.
Also, in spite of growing suspicion and hostility, a large percentage of Muslims have remained peaceful. My wife and I witnessed this on our return trip to Peshawar on September 11, 2002. Before sunrise, we flew down the western edge of Iran, the very place that birthed not only the Khomeini revolution but also some of the most beautiful poetry about Jesus (e.g., "Seek healing from the Christ, for he from … every fault can set you free"; Jami, 15th century). The predawn prayers for God's glory and mercy recited by the Muslim passengers on our flight echoed the prayers the hijackers had uttered to steel their nerves, but for violent ends.