National Security & Defense

Christians and Muslims Share a Bond, and Jihadists Are Determined to Smash It

Memorials outside the parish church at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)
Monotheists of goodwill instinctively want to unite.

Lost in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a Charleston suburb, I was looking for the nearest Catholic church. From the Google map, I’d thought it would be easy to find, but I ended up circling a shopping plaza. Could someone just show me which way is north? I could take it from there.

A few people darted from stores into their cars, possibly spying me out of the corner of their eye and picking up speed to avoid the approach of a stranger who looked ready and poised to bother them. Eventually I caught up with a shopper, a middle-aged woman, before she had a chance to open her car door.

“Excuse me. I need directions. Do you know where the nearest Catholic church is? Christ Our King?”

She looked momentarily puzzled. “The Catholic church?” she said. “Yes, I think I know where that is.”

“Can you just point me in the right direction?”

She did. I was wearing a backpack. She noticed. She said, “Do you need a ride?”

“I was going to walk, but I’m running late. That’s awfully nice of you to offer.”

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” She was half-joking, but only half. No offense taken. She didn’t know me from Adam. She was alone. She was taking a risk.

I assured her I wouldn’t kill her. We got in the car. A bit of awkward small talk ensued. Another nervous, half-jocular reference to killing. “Well, you know, in the end, it’s in God’s hands,” she began to conclude philosophically. “If my time has come . . . ”

Enough, please. I scrambled to redirect the conversation. She asked whether I was going to a service.

“To confession.”

Pause. “Yes, we all need that.” Another pause. She was searching for something appropriate to say. “To confession” seemed to throw her. Her English was good, but she had an accent I couldn’t place. Balkan, maybe? Russian? Do the Eastern Orthodox not have confession? “We need to stay close to God.”

The rest of the five minutes to the church were like that: vague affirmations of the value of religion. At the church, I thanked her and shook her hand as I got out of the car.

“Yes,” she said. “This has been nice. Even though we are different religions.”

“What’s your religion?”

“Muslim,” she said. She pronounced it “Mooslim.”

She deserved more words from me than “thank you.” I wanted to venture some sort of speech about the natural bonds between Christians and Muslims of goodwill, but it was too easy for something like that to go terribly wrong, so I just nodded, closed the car door, and jogged to the front entrance. Sometimes you have to trust your guardian angel to explain to the other person’s guardian angel, who will impress your intended message on the person’s heart.

#share#That was two years ago. Yesterday, in “a gesture of interfaith solidarity following a drumbeat of jihadi attacks that threatens to deepen religious divisions across Europe,” in the words of this moving report from the Associated Press, Muslims across France and Italy showed up at Catholic churches to attend Sunday Mass:

French television broadcast scenes of interfaith solidarity from all around France, with Muslim women in headscarves and Jewish men in kippot crowding the front rows of Catholic cathedrals in Lille, Calais or the Basilica of St. Denis, the traditional resting place of French royalty. . . . 

Among the parishioners in Rouen was a nun who survived Tuesday’s siege in nearby Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, which began when two 19-year-old attackers stormed a stone church and killed [the Reverend Jacques] Hamel as he celebrated morning Mass. She joined her fellow Catholics in turning to shake hands or embrace the Muslim churchgoers after the service.

At Notre Dame cathedral in the French capital, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Mosque of Paris, said repeatedly that Muslims want to live in peace. Boubakeur, in a fraternal nod to the Catholic Church, said he was addressing “Urbi et Orbi” — a Latin blessing long identified with the pope and meaning “to the city and the world.”

And in case you missed it, from last winter:

Bullets struck a bus motoring down the road in Mandera County in northeast Kenya in December. The bus halted and about ten gunmen, thought to be with al-Shabaab, clambered aboard. They ordered the passengers, numbering more than 100, to separate themselves into Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims said no. During the confusion, some Muslim women gave some Christian women their hijabs, and others helped fellow passengers hide behind bags. “If you want to kill us, then kill us,” they told the terrorists, according to a passenger. “There are no Christians here,” they added — if ever there was an occasion for taqiyya, or permissible deception, this was it. A police official said that the attackers left when a passenger, improvising another lie, told them that a police escort was close behind. Two died [the number rose to three after the death of a Muslim man who had been shot and hospitalized] and three were injured in the incident, but most escaped unharmed, thanks to the Mandera Heroes, as they have been dubbed on social media. “Righteous gentiles” we would call them, mutatis mutandis.

Righteous gentiles, yes. Or good Samaritans. In our eagerness to celebrate the remarkable generosity of the hero in what may be Jesus’s most famous parable, we sometimes forget the backstory: To Jesus’s audience, the Samaritan was someone who badly garbled true religion. He had a foot in the universe of Jewish observance but operated outside the law as it pertained to Temple worship in Jerusalem. He had some affinity with it but was ultimately a man in crucial error.

In practice, some Muslims honor certain essential features of Christianity more faithfully than some Christians do.

Likewise, many Christians confronted for the first time with Islam in the Middle Ages recognized its echoes of Judaism and Christianity and tended to regard it not as a whole new religion but as a heresy, a fateful detour from the truth of the Christian faith. Here in the 21st century, Christians still think that Muslims get their theology wrong, certainly in theory. In practice, though, some Muslims honor certain essential features of Christianity more faithfully than some Christians do, insofar as God desires “mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6) on some altar according to Moses’s instructions in Leviticus or, for that matter, according to the Catholic Church’s General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

The three anecdotes laid out here add up to no argument about national security or immigration policy. It remains the case that, in today’s world, most terrorists are Muslims, and most Muslims are not terrorists. The debate about how to balance those two facts is critical and should continue.

#related#Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of a costly but under-remarked consequence of Islamic terrorism: It has disrupted a mutually supportive relationship between devout Muslims and devout Christians, adherents of Abrahamic religion and of a broadly defined moral code to which it gives rise. It has fallen out of fashion in the West. In the 1990s, before jihadists fixed in the Western imagination their twisted image of Islam, many American social conservatives saw Muslims as likely reinforcements to their ranks. Shoulder to shoulder, traditional Christians, Muslims, and Jews would fight the good fight in the culture war. From the podium at the United Nations population conference in Cairo in 1994, for example, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, an unconventional feminist, spoke eloquently in defense of unborn children and led a surprisingly successful effort to stop U.S. and European delegates from their push to legitimize abortion under the rubric “reproductive health.” The outpouring of gratitude from American pro-life advocates was spontaneous and genuine.

Hopes for an alliance between culturally conservative Christians and Muslims united in charity ran high. They have since been largely dashed, though not completely. The flame still burns here and there: on the dusty roads of western Africa last year, and now in the grand churches of Western Europe. I witnessed it and felt its warmth once in the marshes of the Lowcountry.

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