Is Islam Christianity’s greatest challenge? When Middle East expert C. George Fry took that position in a CHRISTIANITY TODAY article in 1969 (CT, NOV. 7, p. 9), letters to the editor ridiculed the notion. However, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Muslims have achieved astounding international prominence.
Today, major world powers are becoming embroiled in the “holy war” raging between the Muslim nations of Iran and Iraq. Fry says the future of Islam, and of Christians throughout much of the world, hinges on the outcome of that war. In an interview with Sharon E. Mumper, associate director of the Evangelical Missions Information Service, Fry describes the issues at stake.
Why are Iran and Iraq fighting?
A geopolitical fault line runs through the area between the countries. People have been fighting over those boundaries and waterways for millenia. Also, there is ancient antipathy between Arabs and Iranians, who are different culturally and ethnically. The majority of Iranians are Persians who speak an Indo-European language. What makes today’s conflict different from past wars is the profound philosophical difference between the secular regime in Iraq and the theocratic regime in Iran.
If both are Muslim countries, why does Iran consider this a holy war?
Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution transformed the country into a society based on religion. Most Iranians are Shi’a Muslims, a sect within Islam. Only 17 percent of the world’s Muslims are Shi’ites. The Ayatollah Khomeini would like the world’s Shi’a Muslims to regard him as their leader. Their religion would become their citizenship, so their primary loyalty would be religious, rather than political. A considerable number of Shi’a Muslims live in Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries. Khomeini’s ambitions threaten these nations, especially since their identity as independent states is fairly recent.
What would happen if Iran wins this war?
If Khomeini wins, it will be regarded as a great divine vindication of Shi’a Islam. He must win—or at least appear to win—in order to retain credibility. Many fear that if Iraq falls, the whole Middle East will tumble like a house of cards. Moderate and conservative Arab governments throughout the Middle East could collapse one after another. You could see Khomeini-like regimes in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. And if Egypt embraced Islamic fundamentalism, the domino effect would be felt all across North Africa.
Why would an Iranian victory affect moderate, more secular Muslim governments?
There is tremendous latent fundamentalism in countries with a large Muslim majority. At the same time, people are frustrated by the failure of secular societies to secure the “good life” for their citizens. A victorious Iran would serve as a model Islamic society. Iran could be a source of money, weapons, advice, and leaders to supply fundamentalist groups throughout the Muslim world. Iran is an example of a revolution that worked; it demonstrates the power of militant Islam.
How has the war affected Christians in the Middle East?
It has heightened the sense of insecurity throughout the region. The Ayatollah’s involvement in Lebanon has destabilized the Christian community there. Random violence against Christians in the Middle East has increased, and many are leaving the region. As a result, the church is dying out. If the entire Middle East were Islamicized, with fundamentalist regimes gaining power in Iraq and Egypt, for example, I believe you would see a Christian exodus from the region. Christian mission efforts as we know them would be over in the Middle East.
In view of current developments in the Middle East, what can Christianity say to Muslims?
Muslims are basically talking power, and our theology must come to grips with that. We need to prove that Jesus Christ delivers people and changes their lives. Many moderate Muslims may now be more open to Christianity than previously. Some have said, “If Khomeini is Islam, we don’t want it.” Khomeini may be the best thing to happen to Christian missions, if we can present a winsome Christian alternative.
Muslims are looking for spiritual meaning in life. They know they will not have everything materially, but they are willing to give their lives for a high spiritual purpose. Christians had thought that if the Middle East were to become secularized, Muslims could be more easily won to Christ. But we are seeing that faith speaks to faith.
How has the war affected the Western church?
It has created false stereotypes of Muslims as fanatics, terrorists, and crazies—hindering Christian understanding of Islam. Khomeini does not represent the vast majority of Muslims. The war has made people more conscious of Islam, making it a concern for Christian missions. There is more interest in Muslim missions now than perhaps ever before.
If the Iran-Iraq war continues and the United States becomes increasingly involved, what issues will American Christians have to face?
The war and our involvement will become a major foreign policy issue for all Americans. As Christians, we will have to examine our attitude toward international arms sales, since these countries are able to continue the war only because others supply weapons. In addition, we will have to look at the role of consumption in our society. How will we respond if oil from the Persian Gulf region is shut off?
What is the future of Islam?
By the start of the next century, Islam will be the largest world religion. Dispersion and immigration will spread Islam throughout the world, and Muslims will be more evangelistic and self-confident. An Iranian victory in the war would radicalize Islam, as more moderate elements are shown to be powerless. I see a much more militant and aggressive future for Islam.
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