Recently a flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse was delayed two hours, stalled on the runway, because one passenger became concerned when she perceived a man of Middle Eastern descent scribbling what appeared to be Arabic on a piece of paper. Was he an Islamic terrorist? Was he scrawling out his intentions to hijack the flight and create mayhem?
It turns out the man was an Italian economics professor at University of Pennsylvania who was scribbling an algebraic equation. He wasn’t a terrorist; he was a math nerd.
This story is more than a case of mistaken identity. It illustrates something about the “fear of Islam” that grips many in our society. While Islamophobia obviously has something to do with Islam—or, at least, certain perceptions of Islam—it is the fear factor that often develops a life of its own. In other words, Islamophobia has less to do with Islam and more to do with fear.
This reality is prevalent among Christians, despite what the faith teaches. In the New Testament, Jesus continually exhorts his followers, “fear not.” It is his most repeated exhortation and thus reveals something fundamental about the Christian faith. Unfortunately, when it comes to current concerns about Islam, many Christians are doing exactly what Jesus warns against: They are giving into fear which produces the fruit of anxiety, judgment, anger, hatred, self-protecting isolation and/or militant aggression. When this happens, we betray ourselves, fail our Muslim neighbors, and botch our Christian witness.
Such fear was on display after last year’s Paris attacks, in a sermon by the evangelical pastor, Robert Jeffress. At one point, Jeffress claimed that Muslims follow a warrior prophet who killed his enemies and called his followers to do the same, while Christians follow a loving savior who called his followers to love their enemies. While his characterization of Islam is deeply problematic, what is more relevant here is what he says a few minutes later when he vigorously wags his finger in the air and declares, “it is time to start bombing the ‘you know what’ out of ISIS. That is a Biblical response!” How did he get from point A to point B? He did so through exegetical gymnastics that short-circuit Christian love and grant impunity to the U.S. government to do, in his words, “whatever is necessary” to destroy radical Islam. (Interestingly, his language closely parallels Malcolm X’s infamous call to oppose racial injustice “by any means necessary“).