It has been over a week since Taliban militants abducted 23 South Korean Christians in insurgency-prone Ghazni province. The church group was on its way allegedly to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens when their bus was hijacked last Thursday. The leader of the aid group and another member of the group have been killed. The kidnapping is the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
By their acts of violence the Taliban and other extremists capture headlines and leave to the rest of the world an impression of Islam that is of a band of primitive tribesman or a religion unable to hold its zealots in check, cruel and barbaric. Like Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, Islam is what its adherents understand it to be. This is largely determined by how its religious leaders interpret the religious texts to mean. Christianity and Judaism over their long history and despite bitter struggles within have evolved their own system of an understanding of faith based on ethical/moral values. These can be easily understood and accepted by lay people and are not entirely dependent on the interpretations of the clerics.
Islam unfortunately remains at the mercy of clerics who interpret each and every aspect of life on this earth - and even the Hereafter! This is a major source of confusion and conflict within Islam as we look at the daily reports on sectarian and other forms of violence in the Muslim world. The Muslim masses remain vulnerable to exploitation by the clerics and their interpretations of the texts. For the Korean evangelists, they may have a fervent faith but some in their own society also see them as pawns in a competition among churches. The competition feeds fund-raising for missionary expeditions that also serves the coffers of the sponsoring church.
These are the new moneychangers on the temple steps.
In ancient times, Jesus chased them away as they were not holy. Certainly the photo opportunity before the warning signs about Afghanistan in the Seoul airport foments media-grabbing sensationalism while foretelling a folly.
The ultra conservative Taliban are prevalent along the region traveled by the evangelists. Their understanding of Islam and also of the world we live in is at best primitive if not barbaric. What did the evangelists surmise as the logical possibilities?
Could they not see they risked their own and others' injury or death? Nonetheless they ventured forward, not respecting the expressed wishes of those they hoped to influence.
In all analysis, cultural appreciation, pragmatism, and consistency in thought and deed of expressed faith, the South Koreans' zealous behavior was catalytic to a crisis where no more is needed.
They risk not only their lives but innocents surrounding the crisis situation and those who they came to save into their faith. The Taliban's response was consistent with their past record of intolerance. Their destruction of the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan a few years back is but only one of several examples of their medieval mindset and behavior. They reacted predictably to a group of religious fanatics with their own fanaticism. The Taliban do not understand that death and capture are not the best means of confronting a challenge to one's faith.
The strength of one's faith and the common sense to see something for what it is should be the basis for challenge.
Physical confrontation is not necessary. The Holy Qur'an says, "If anyone killed a person, unless it was for murder or spreading mischief on earth, it would be as if he killed all of mankind. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he had saved the lives of all mankind." (5:32). Killing is unacceptable. Islam emphasizes tolerance, inviting others to lead peaceful lives within the societies based on their own law and tenets. Within Islam, hostage taking, suicide, or terrorist attacks are not permitted. They are considered a great sin. To take innocent persons hostage by availing of some opportunity and then bargaining with their lives is entirely against Islamic teaching.
This practice was prevalent in ancient times but unfortunately it has currently assumed a tactical form. This is a great sin and cowardice and is entirely forbidden in Islam. Muslims have been forbidden to attack innocent civilians; they have not even been permitted to kill an unarmed soldier in wartime. The mores of Islam are to treat visitors with respect and grace. Violence is not how one deals with difference.
The teachings of the Qur'an are interpreted at times differently among Muslims but there is common respect for the guest from other lands. In any group, our brothers and sisters define who we are.
We must take responsibility to not tolerate aberrant conduct should it become the collective reputation of the group.
Christianity needs to bring realism to evangelism that has devolved to competition in fund-raising and mitigates common sense.
Muslims need to set the expectation that visitors of different faiths are tolerated and even in the face of evangelism or any other religious challenge Islam can hold its own with its inner strength rather than by its followers to react in anger and violence. Too much of the world is now poised for conflict.
In the media, specific acts of violence capture attention and polarize.
In place of dealing with the real challenges before all human kind such as epidemic disease, sustaining the environment, realizing welfare and education for all, and conflict resolution based on justice from the home to nation-states, we engage in wars without purpose or end. How much of energy in celebrating Him is diluted to the distraction of these episodes? Where would God prefer us to spend our lives? The Taliban must release the hostages immediately and provide the ill ones necessary medical care. The Koreans must not get carried away in their missionary zeal to put not only themselves in harm's way but put others at risk.
The majority of Muslims believe in an Islam that is in accord with the civilized, humanitarian and tolerant values and norms of this world. Their voices need to be heard. It is not just the Koreans who are being held hostage; it is also the spirit of Islam that is being held hostage. Let's not be silent anymore.
Dr. Nazir Khaja is chairman of the Los Angeles-based Islamic Information Service. He can be reached at [email protected]
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