Months before the movie Kingdom of Heaven was to be released, critics lined up to lament how this big-budget film about the Crusades would set back Muslim-Christian relations, leading to a Muslim or Christian backlash, depending on whom you read. But it's not as if this movie is raising an issue long since dead. The question is not if the Crusades are a live memory for Muslims, but why? And how do Christians who minister to Muslims deal with this sad historical fact?
Warren Larson is director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University, Columbia, South Carolina. An associate professor of Islam with expertise in Muslim fundamentalism, the Canadian-born Larson was a church-planting missionary in the Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, from 1969 to 1991. (The small church he and his wife worked in remains active in the 99.9 percent Muslim city of Dera Ghazi Khan.)
Today Larson travels widely in the Muslim world. Stan Guthrie, ct's senior associate news editor and author of Missions in the Third Millennium, interviewed him.
The First Crusade began nearly a millennium ago, and yet we often hear that Muslims think about those terrible events as if they happened yesterday. Why?
It's a perception of ongoing Western imperialism. There's a long history of unsuccessful encounters. The Crusades are in there, but also the fact that the Muslims were booted out of Spain in 1492. That's also very bitter for them. And then there was colonialism. Nine-tenths of the Muslim world was under colonialism. They connect all thisincluding Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and other things going on in the Middle East.
Why do so many Muslims continue to see the West as a Christian empire when, in fact, it's become highly secularized and pluralistic in recent decades?
One reason is that there are a lot of Christians here in the West. Muslims are convinced that evangelical Christians won the vote for George W. Bush and that America is quite Christian. Those perceptions, of course, are only partly true. One would hope [Muslims] would understand that the West is post-Christian, but in many ways, it hasn't quite hit them yet.
When we were living in Pakistan, they felt the things that went on in Americathe immorality, the immodesty, the drinkingwere sanctioned by Christianity.
Sometimes evangelicals in North America, particularly in the United States, say things that are not wise. They're not helping Muslim-Christian relations. In some cases, they have demonized Islam and denigrated the prophet [Muhammad]. They've done it publicly. This news travels far and wide, and Muslims print it in their newspapers. That keeps some of the feeling alive.
Can't we just explain to Muslims the concept of free speech and the open exchange of ideas?
Yes, but saying that Muhammad was a demonized pedophile doesn't seem accurate or fair. Nor is it wise. We have a free press, but we have to use it with discretion.
How do negative Muslim perceptions affect Christian missionaries and local Christians at street level?
In some areas of Pakistan, Islam has been radicalized, and anti-Americanism is higher today than when I was there. Partly as a result, the 500 missionaries who were there have now been reduced to about 100.
Christians have suffered. There have been quite a few attacks in places such as Pakistan. Churches have been burned. Schools have been attacked. Muslim converts [to Christianity], in particular, have suffered and feel quite vulnerable. When I was in Ethiopia recently, the fellow who did my translating was a Somali. He was part of a group of believers, formerly Muslims, who came out of Somalia in 1994 when the U.S. military failed in Mogadishu. Islamists hunted down and killed 14 members of his group. He got out of there by the skin of his teeth.
How should local Christians and missionaries respond to these historically negative associations with the Crusades in the minds of Muslims?
I think an apology is in order. But having said that, I think we have to hold Muslims accountable, too. They might forget or not be aware that, starting in 1915, Turks killed more than a million and a half Armenian Christians. There have been unsuccessful encounters between Muslims and Christians for nearly the last 1,500 years, but [this history is] not all the fault of the West and Christians. Muslims have also done wrong.
Wouldn't you say that Christians have apologized because they recognized that they did not live up to the ideals of their faith, such as turning the other cheek? A lot of Muslims might think, however, that the Islamic doctrine of jihad justifies certain violent actions. Thus, they may not be so willing to apologize.
That's true. Islam doesn't teach you to forgive your enemies. But, for the sake of truth, we need to confront them. We can do it lovingly, but we need to do it.
When you forgive Muslims, they recognize the difference. They say, "We don't forgive anybody, but now we see that you're different." On November 20, 1979, when the holy Kaaba in Mecca was taken over by unnamed insurgents, we were living in Dera Ghazi Khan. The rumor went out, thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini, that it was the work of Americans and Jews. When the false rumor reached our city, a mob formed and attacked us at our house and burned our jeeps, burned our literature, smashed furniture, and could have killed us, but for the grace of God.
During this time, the American embassy was burned to the ground in Islamabad. A few days later, the news came out that [the perpetrators at the Kaaba were] not Americans and Jews, but Saudis. The police and the military in our city rescued us and grabbed a few of the rioters and put them in prison.
We went to them and said, "We forgive you. We're not going to lodge a case against you." Then, neighbors, some of the people who knew me well, embraced me.
They said, "Mr. Larson, we now know the difference between you and us. We do not forgive our enemies. When there's trouble between us, Sunnis and Shiites, we fight and burn one another's shops. But you have forgiven us."
That was a great help, because it furthered our cause.
I said, "We're just doing what Jesus taught us to do."
Do you see that as a model for future interactions?
I sure do. I think it's very much waging peace on Islam rather than taking a militant stance as Christians. It's a kind of spirit. It's doing mission in the light of the Cross, or in the shadow of the Cross. It's a spirit of reconciliation, and it certainly does help. And Muslims respond. They do.
Seeing Christ on the Cross forgive his enemies in The Passion of the Christ was really quite powerful for Muslims. They may have gone to see the movie with wrong motives, but the fact that he forgave his enemies from the Cross seemed to touch them. Many, many Muslims went to see this movie. It was very powerful.
Do you expect Kingdom of Heaven to have an effect on Christian-Muslim relations?
I don't know. I hope it doesn't hinder them, because there's enough already out there to worsen conditions.
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Coverage of the film from Christianity Today Movies includes:
Kingdom Come | Director Sir Ridley Scott, a self-described agnostic, and leading man Orlando Bloom, discuss their new film about the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, opening in theaters Friday (May 04, 2005)
'This Is Not a Documentary' | So says one of three scholars of Kingdom of Heaven, an epic film about the Crusades opening this week (May 03, 2005)
More CT articles about the Crusades includes:
Unholy Wars | Two books document the dangers of mixing church and state. (Jan. 27, 2005)
Christian History Corner: A Muslim Perspective on War | Muslim response to the Crusades showed jihad in action, and while the grievances have changed, the rhetoric still echoes. (Oct. 5, 2001)
Christians Retrace Crusaders' Steps | The effort is being called the "Reconciliation Walk." And the 2,000-mile, three-year walk across Europe, through the Balkans and Turkey, then south to Jerusalem, seeks to build bridges of understanding and to reverse a legacy of animosity among three of the world's most prominent religions. (Oct. 7, 1996)
Our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, devoted an issue to the crusades.
Thomas F. Madden wrote a cover story on the crusades for Crisis magazine.
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