“Are you a good Muslim or a bad Muslim?”

“Are you a good Muslim or a bad Muslim?” asked a Christian parishioner to a visiting Muslim who was interested in learning more about Christianity. Although the parishioner tried to pass off this question as a joke, it has served for me as the paradigmatic question that reflects many Americans’ suspicion and ignorance with regard not only to the Muslim faith, but to the diverse group of people who identify as Muslim.

The fact that this question could be asked OUT LOUD to a GUEST of a Christian Church demonstrates a deep and pervasive understanding, in the status quo culture of the United States, that expressions of Islamophobia are not taboo, but actually to be expected.

This is a situation that becomes more clear with a quick perusal of situations across the country involving the discrimination and humiliation of individual Muslims. One high school teacher in Texas felt comfortable enough to address his ninth grade student during class saying:  “I bet that you’re grieving…” the day after Osama bin Laden’s death. Jim Scharnagel in Gainsville, FL felt justified in congratulating the pilots who refused to fly a plane while two Muslim leaders were aboard in his letter to the editor to the Gainesville Times on May 13th, 2011: “There’s no way to tell which Muslims seek to do us harm”. Scharnagel offers his solution to protect us (by us he means…?) from terrorism:  “we have to… get the Muslims out of the U.S.”

Some might argue that these are isolated incidents of ignorance and hate, I think they are signs of a much greater and gracious acceptance of an underlying tendency of many in the United States to see Islam as a violent religion.  Affiliates of said violent religion, therefore, at the very least should be interrogated about whose side they are on (if they are good or bad Muslims) and possibly be asked to leave (or eradicated?) from American soil… in order to keep us (again us who?) safe.

But I have to say, on the other side of the spectrum…. I’ve also been irritated at a recent certain form of Christian moralistic discourse surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden — basically asking the question: “What Would Jesus Do – dance on bin Laden’s grave or not?” There have been several blog posts and tweets urging restraint with regard to such celebration. Many express a definitiveness about what God has to say about the subject and condemn those who have different reactions. I do not want to make this another post about bin Laden except to say… enough with, what Rob Rynders calls, Practicing a Fashionable Peace and let’s get to work doing peace, as C. Nikole Saulsberry calls us to do in her post.

For those Christians with an interest in going beyond platitudes and doing peace… I find that often when we are faced with such a difficult task–like fighting Islamophobia in the United States, for example, can be overwhelming and even paralyzing. That’s why it is often much easier to sum up how we feel in tweets or blog posts, but then never actually do much to change the current situation. May I suggest to you, and to those of our Muslim and Jewish counterparts, the practice of Scriptural Reasoning as a starting point towards possible peace and making a safe place for all (note: not ‘us’).

Scriptural Reasoning, as I wrote about in a previous post, is a practice that depends on one of the central particularities of these faiths — their scriptures — as a starting point of dialogue. The invitation to read and discuss each others sacred text unites participants not as people who have the same beliefs, but rather, as people who are in relationship. This type of peace building is slow, but effective.  It helps to tear down assumptions we have been fed by society and replaces them with actual conversations and debates had between flesh-and-blood human beings.

In order to practice Scriptural Reasoning one must go through training. This training is a sort of discipleship into a new habit of dialogue, a new practice of peace. For three days participants do Scriptural Reasoning with the help of a seasoned facilitator. The next training for Scirptural Reasoning is being held at the University of Virginia on Saturday, June 25, 2011 – Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Please click here for more information about the training and how to register.

Perhaps many Christians would not ask a Muslim visitor if he or she was a good or bad Muslim, but it should be our Christian duty not only to be polite to those who differ from us, but to love them as Christ loved us.  This type of love does not get expressed through silence, cold tolerance or even friendly sentiments, but through active engagement and dialogue.  The scriptures document that in the early Christian church this love shone through in the way the community lived:

All who believed were together and had all things in common;they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceedsto all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at homeand ate their food with glad and generoushearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I do not advocate that we mimic some romanticized version of the early Christian Church, instead I advocate that whatever it is we do as Christians that we do it… praising God and having the good will of all the people. Let us continue in this tradition by taking up practices that demonstrate God’s love for the world… not through judgement or control but through incarnational engagement and relationship. For it is only through intentional practices, such as Scriptural Reasoning, that evils such as Islamophobia will be eradicated… and interrogation, even in jest, of Muslim guests in Christian spaces will be made unthinkable.

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13 thoughts on ““Are you a good Muslim or a bad Muslim?”

  1. Thank you for this Kelly – you address a difficult and charged issue with nuance and sensitivity. I think you might be interested, given your interest in Christian-Muslim relations and Scriptural Reasoning, with the following episode of a radio program from the UK I listen to often:


    One of the speakers is Muhammad Al Hussaini, a Muslim scholar for the organisation Scriptural Reasoning, and his perspective might interest you.

    Another of the speakers is Anjem Choudary. Apparently, he “has frequently praised Bin Laden and Al Queada for their acts of terror,” and “says Osama was a true Muslim doing the work of Allah”.

    This brings me to the question I would like to raise. I accept that the examples of prejudice against Muslims are entirely unacceptable. At the same time I do think Islam should be subject to critique, as should every body of ideas and practices. And I think it would be unwise to overlook that, at least as Choudary claims on the radio program I linked, bin Laden was not a fringe figure but a widely respected individual with a large following.

    As far as I can tell (which may not be very far, granted, but how can we know such things?) there are many people who still support bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam.

    So I suppose my question is, how do we criticize this without being seen as Islamophobic, when the Islamic faith in particular, and at this point in history, seems to be particularly prickly when it comes to criticism (I’m thinking of the controversy over cartoons and novels here…)?

      1. James,
        While I won’t presume to speak for Kelly, I think the beginning of our problem is making any statement that begins “Islam is…” or contains a phrase like “the true face of Islam”. While it may be that the most vocal institutions representing (or claiming to represent) large portions of Islam(s) do engage in behavior and rhetoric that is reprehensible and should be called out as such, there is to me an enormous gulf between criticizing behaviors (and even particular institutions, e.g a particular religious authority) and criticizing “Islam”.

        Which brings me to my second point, which is that there is an easy way to be critical, and then there is a responsible way to be critical. Many of the behaviors, ideologies, etc., that various individuals and institutions within Islam engage in horrify us, as they should. But are we going to just stop with being horrified, or are we going to do the hard work of evaluating those behaviors, etc. in their historical, social, and religious context? What, for example, has been the understanding of jihad throughout the history of Islam? Has it historically meant different things than we think it means now? Perhaps more critically in this context, what is the relationship of radicalized Islams to colonialism? And so on.

        1. I think you make good points, particularly as regards recognizing the role of colonialism in the history of the the development of certain forms of Islam as it is currently understood.

          I am wary though that “the hard work of evaluating those behaviors, etc. in their historical, social, and religious context” can become a process of excuse-making, by which we progressively absolve certain radical Islamic groups of their responsibility for their actions because we assume that, having placed them in a historical and social context, WE (as in “the West”) are ultimately responsible for their existence.

          I also find there is a tendency, during such evaluative processes, to underplay the importance of such values as democracy, freedom etc. in what becomes a self-defeating form of guilt about our own past. I am very concerned about that, because I think it disables us from responding effectively to whatever real dangers might be posed by certain forms of Islam.

          1. I agree that it is important not to be self deprecating just for the sake of being self deprecating, which is why I tried to frame my “hard work of evaluating…” comment specifically in terms of a process of criticism. I think we can be critical of institutions and behaviors while understanding the complexity of their origins. I think this makes us less hubristic about the entire process, even if ultimately we render our criticisms with a strong sense of moral urgency. (In this vein I believe there is a critical distinction between the terms “explanation” and “excuse”– a distinction that all too often gets elided.)
            I meant that we should temper our absolute pride in the values you mention with the understanding that a.) those values never function in a vacuum, and b.) those values are too often invoked as an excuse for morally reprehensible activites– too often colonialism, for instance, is sold as “spreading freedom or democracy.”

    1. Hi James, Thank you for your comments. I’m sorry that at the moment I am unable to fully address them, but I need to clarify one point.

      Mr.Hussaini is in no way connected to SSR, INC; he took the name against protests from SSR, Inc and has been a source of on-going tension and unpleasantness. Some of the activities of his organization are compatible with SR and are in that sense for the good. Some of the activities are not bad but simply a different approach than the SR. The very regrettable part of his work is his own rhetoric which has without cause been directed to bring attention to himself and to raise criticisms that not supported by other observers of inter-abrahamic programs in the University.

      For information on SR that is sponsored by SSR, Inc., you can check out the following websites:


      In order to practice SR that is certified by SSR, Inc, you must attend one of the summer trainings or have an approved SSR, Inc facilitator come and lead a training session. For more information about the upcoming training: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/jsrforum/srevents.html

      I will try to get to the content of the comments sometime this week.

      Thanks again and peace,

      1. Thanks you for this clarification – it’s helpful! Look forward to your reply when you are able.

  2. Hi James,
    Sorry for the delay in response. And I haven’t been able to listen to the link you’ve passed on… but a response nonetheless.

    I follow in the same sort of logic as RJL… Islam is not monolithic (or even dyadic (good or bad)), even though most of the time it is portrayed as such in our society. I’ve had the privilege of taking an independent study in Islam – it was actually an intro class for undergraduates, but since I knew no more than my pre-programmed societal prejudices beforehand, it has given me a greater appreciation for the complex history and diverse systems of religious practice within Islam.

    Additionally I have learned that generally for Muslims their faith is not separated from politics – for me this is actually more honest than many Christians’ “stances” on faith and politics… I’m not saying that Islam has it right, but it seems much more honest to take up politics as part of the religious concern… rather than pretend that you can be a Christian in the United States, benefit from the US military… wear clothes that are made in sweatshops by oppressed peoples south of the boarder… and point to Muslims as “inherently violent” while Christians are so “morally superior”- I mean please.

    So my response to moral ambiguity — that we all espouse — Christians, Muslim, Jews, Atheists, etc… is to critique the HELL out of my own tradition (a life-long adventure) and to form relationships with those outside of my tradition. This of course will not solve all the problems in the world, but it’s what I can do without essentializing others or being a total hypocrite (I’m always somewhat of a hypocrite… but this is why I’ve taken up the name siemprechipil — to keep myself as honest as humanly possible).

    Not sure if this answers your question.


  3. Hi Kelly,

    Thank you for your thoughts! I do think perhaps there’s a reply to my question in there, but I’m not sure it’s one I find particularly comfortable. I suppose I take from what you say – that you seek to “critique the HELL out of my own tradition…and to form relationships with those outside of my tradition” – that you don’t as a rule, critique others’ traditions.

    This becomes problematic for me when others’ traditions engage in dehumanizing and violent activities and practices. And there’s no doubt that some forms of Islam, practiced in certain ways, are indeed dehumanizing and violent. Add that to the dangers of openly criticizing certain facets of Islam and you have a dangerous combination. I’m not sure the position I derive from your reply enables us to effectively combat these challenges.

  4. This is a great piece, Kelly! 🙂

    With all of my work in this realm – teaching, lecturing, writing on Islamophobia and Christian-Muslim relations, I am coming to the conclusion that there are people who get it and people who simply don’t. When I was flying back from Turkey in March, I was standing in the aisle stretching and struck up a conversation with two men from the US. When i told them I was a theologian I got the usual blank stares. When I told them what I did, then I got the questions; what do you think about Muslims? Are they all bad? Why do they hate us? Are there any Muslims who are not radical? I patiently answered all their questions, not changing their settled opinions at all. In the end, one of them asked me again, “What is your first master’s degree in?” I answered, “I have an MA Theological Research in Christian-Muslim Understanding.” The one man looked at the other and said, “Christian-Muslim understanding. The Christian is first, at least..” As if to say, if I had a degree in Muslim-Christian Understanding, that would change things… The mindset is astonishing, so say the least…

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