A woman named Hafsa lives down my street. She is Muslim. I have met her son, Mousa. Mousa and my son skateboard on our street and talk about religion. I told Mousa that I would like to meet his mother. He gave me her phone number and I called her. She was not home. I called again a week later. Mousa answered. He said that she wasn't home but that he would have her call me. She didn't call.

A week later I tried again. Mousa answered and said he would "make it my mission" to have his mother call me. That was several weeks ago, and she still hasn't called. I'm told that many Muslim women possess as much reticence and misunderstanding toward "Christian Americans" as Christians do toward Muslims. They think that our faith is corrupted and that we hate them.

"When it comes to reaching Muslims, multitudes of people have stumbled for cultural, social, and linguistic reasons, before they ever had the opportunity to stumble at the cross," says Robert Douglas, former director of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies and now director of the Chicago Center for Urban Mission. He means that Christians confront many obstacles that thwart them in understanding and relating to Muslims.

"There is a desperate need for evangelical Christians to take the time to understand Islam and not to buy into the stereotypes that are floating out there," Douglas says. "We will have to work hard at building relationships with Muslims, which means a Christian presence where Muslims are concentrated."

As we move into the third millennium, God-fearing Muslims from every corner of the earth are moving into our neighborhoods. And more are coming.

"God is sending the world to the door of the [American] church," Douglas says. "Every lay person in the pew has the opportunity for outreach."

Between 1989 and 1998 the Islamic population in Europe grew by over 100 percent, to 14 million (approximately 2 percent of the population), according to United Nations statistics. During the same period, the Muslim population in the United States grew by 25 percent. Islam is the second-largest religious group in the world, with more than a billion members worldwide (some estimates put it closer to two billion). An estimated 4 to 6 million Muslims live in the U.S. today, and that number is growing. Islam could be the second-largest religion in America by 2015, surpassing Judaism, according to some estimates. By other estimates, Islam has achieved that rank already.

Muslims moving to the West are changing the cultural and religious landscape. A hospital in Detroit offers Muslim patients copies of the Qur'an; Denver International Airport includes a chapel for Muslim prayers; the U.S. Senate has invited a Muslim cleric to open its session in prayer; the military has hired four Muslim chaplains; the White House sends greetings (like its Christmas cards) on Id al-Fitr, the feast that ends Ramadan; the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington D.C. sends 100 Qur'ans a month to prisons while imams (spiritual leaders) send volunteers to teach Arabic. "On Capitol Hill … weekly Muslim prayer services and forums to expose congressional staffers to Muslim viewpoints have become regular fare," notes Ira Rifkin of Religion News Service (Nov. 30, 1999), "and a bill has been introduced in Congress to issue a postage stamp commemorating Ramadan."

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Muslims are fully exercising the rights and freedoms available to them in the West. Last fall, the watch dog Council on American—Islamic Relations (CAIR) objected to the season premiere of Touched by an Angel, which featured a story line about slavery in Sudan and forced conversions of Christians living in the south. A CAIR official said the show was tantamount to "thinly disguised anti-Muslim propaganda and political partisanship."

Also last fall, American Muslim groups called for a boycott of Disney theme parks and merchandise to protest the Jerusalem exhibit at Disney World's EPCOT. They cited Israel's "illegal occupation and annexation" of Jerusalem, saying Disney ignored the city's significance to Islam. "Since Disney has elected to venture from entertainment into politics, the corporation must see that our community will not accept its endorsement of Israel's acquisition of territory by force," said Khalid Turaani, executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem.

CAIR's 1999 annual report on Muslim civil rights stated that American public schools are a "major area in which Muslim apprehension about the lack of religious accommodation is growing." Still, the report cited progress in Chicago, where alternative foods are available when pork is served; Fairfax County, Virginia, where a "pig" sign on school menus indicates items that include pork; and in Paterson, New Jersey, where the school district cancels classes on two Muslim holidays.

The Mecca-based Muslim World League spearheads a "massive Islamic missionary effort," notes Mission Frontiers (October 1999). "Vast sums of [oil] money are used to propagate Islam around the world: aid to countries considered sympathetic, building mosques, sending missionaries, literature, radio, etc. The world's largest printing presses are located here, and they churn out 28 million copies of the Koran every year for worldwide distribution."

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While Muslims gain religious rights in the West, persecution of religious minorities by extreme Islamic elements in some Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East continues unabated. The 1999 U.S. State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom notes that in Pakistan, for example, "discriminatory legislation has encouraged an atmosphere of religious intolerance."

The report says that Christians "face harassment and intimidation." In Saudi Arabia, "any attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith is subject to criminal prosecution. Public religious worship by any non-Muslim is a criminal offense." In Sudan, "Christians, practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, and Muslims who deviate from the Government's interpretation of Islam are subject to severe limits on religious freedom, including killing, prolonged arbitrary detention or imprisonment, threats, violence, and forced conversion to Islam."

Conversely, Muslims have suffered persecution at the hands of Christians, as the Serbian atrocities against Muslims and the war in Chechnya attest. These and other forms of persecution incline them to view the Christian West with similar foreboding.

Islam has a missionary mandate and the West is one of its final frontiers. "They see us [in the West] as having forsaken the foundations of our faith" and view Western nations as ripe for conversion to Islam, says David Echols, who worked in Pakistan for 25 years and now serves as outreach director at the South Asian Friendship Center (SAFC) in Chicago.

"In their minds and hearts Muslims believe firmly that Christianity has failed on the racial, social, and religious perspectives," says SAFC director Samuel Naaman, a Pakistani whose Muslim father was a terrorist before converting to Christianity. "Look at society and the people who claim to be Christians. What is the difference between them? Muslims believe they have a mandate from God that the whole world has to come under the banner of Islam."

Douglas described a Muslim missionary conference several years ago at which one speaker expressed the need to target 75 million Americans for Islam. Another speaker cited successes in Egypt and Indonesia [both nominally Christian before Islam took over]. "If it takes 500 or 1,000 years, that's OK. We're here for the long haul," the speaker said.

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Islam is gaining most of its U.S. converts in prisons and on university campuses. The majority of American converts to Islam—85 to 90 percent—are black. Of the estimated 6 million Muslims in the U.S., 2.6 million are black. "One out of every 15 blacks identifies him or herself as Muslim," notes Carl Ellis. Anglo women make up an another demographic with a surprisingly high conversion rate in the U.S.

At the same time, the American Christian community has misunderstood Islam and so neglected to address it. It is impossible to present the scope of this complex belief system in a single article. Islam is complicated, disparate, evolving, and sometimes at war with itself. Still, Christians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors, come to terms with their increasing presence and influence, and learn how to bear an authentic witness out of love and not fear.

To do this, it is necessary to be informed about the basics of Islam and how Muslims view Christianity; to be equipped with helpful models for relating to Muslims; and to be encouraged to engage our Muslim neighbors, boldly and lovingly, sincerely and tenaciously.

Tomorrow: Learning the Islamic Fundamentals

Wendy Murray Zoba is Associate Editor of Christianity Today. Her recent articles include "Won't You Be My Neighbor? | At the center of Mister Rogers' cheery songs and smiles lies a God-ordained mission to children," and "Take a Little Time Out | Amy Grant's ever-smiling face is everywhere, obscuring the tragedy of two failed marriages."

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