Can we work with Muslims? Politics and the common good

The Financial Times is running a story that says Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are considering entering into a political union to help each other counter the threat of Iran. The Gulf states have found solidarity in their concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, about how Iran’s ally Assad is butchering his own people in Syria, and about subversive (and pro-democratic) Iranian activities within their own borders.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has put out a report showing how much support for Osama bin Laden (before his death) and for Al Qaeda have plummeted across the Middle East in the last decade:

A year after the death of its leader, al Qaeda is widely unpopular among Muslim publics. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, conducted March 19 to April 13, 2012, finds majorities – and mostly large majorities – expressing negative views of the terrorist group in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon.

We’re talking unfavorable views ranging from 71-98% in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. And it has not always been this way.

Perhaps the most striking decline occurred in Jordan, where in 2005 61% had expressed confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs.  The next year, this number plummeted to 24% following al Qaeda suicide attacks in the nation’s capital, Amman.  By 2011, only 13% expressed confidence in him.

What does it all mean? Events in the Middle East are not a matter of the United States and Israel versus the Arab or Islamic world. It is not America that is driving international efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a nuclear weapons program, or America that is imposing on everyone a campaign against Al Qaeda. No, from Syria to Afghanistan, from Iran to Yemen, Arabs and Americans, Muslims and Christians are cooperating in various efforts to solve problems of common concern.

I am not suggesting that these are examples of loving brotherhood with a shared vision of shalom. There are issues of massive importance that divides the United States from allies like Saudi Arabia, not the least of which is the latter country’s oppression of women, Christians, or democratic freedoms. Indeed, only a few days ago the leading Saudi cleric declared that all Christian churches in Saudi Arabia should be closed, a declaration that brought immediate rebuke from Islamic clerics in Turkey.

My point, rather, is that this is how politics works, both internationally and domestically. Liberals and Conservatives, Christians and Muslims often tell themselves that political conflict is ultimately about religious ideals or visions of civilization, and of course, there is truth to that. But at a more basic level, and in the nitty-gritty of what goes on abroad and here in America is about working together to solve problems of common concern, problems like crime, disease, unemployment, pollution, and the nurture of the young. Almost always, we have so much more in common than we think we do, and almost always the majority of people do not take the radical positions on the polar ends of the political spectrum. Saudi Arabia and the United States cooperate to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans cooperate to prohibit same-sex marriage in California. Christian Right activists and libertarians push Congress to the right through the activity of the Tea Party. Religious, confessional, and political ideologies are jumbled together in a mixture of pragmatism, principle, and politics.

As Christians, one of the ways in which we can testify to the love of Christ is by refusing to see every problem through the lens of culture wars, or of clashes of civilization and religion. Yes, there are issues – major issues – on which we must fight hard and not compromise: the right to life, basic religious liberty, the inviolability of marriage. But on most questions of political importance what is much more important is a spirit of cooperation and humility: the deficit, Iran, crime.

Politics is not our avenue for bringing about the kingdom of God. Politics is a means of working together with our neighbors for the achievement of the common good. When we do that well, cooperatively, and lovingly, though refusing to compromise on our most basic convictions, we witness to the kingdom far more effectively than when we try to ram it down people’s throats.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 1, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Can we work with Muslims? Politics and the common good.

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