By Robert Wright, for the New York Times:

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on Using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life.

But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

These missionaries start out by noting that the Koran depicts Jesus and his mother, Mary, in a favorable light. Indeed, they point out, the Koran depicts Jesus as a great prophet and a miracle worker who can even raise the dead. In contrast, the Koran doesn’t show Muhammad himself doing that sort of thing. Hmmm … kind of makes you wonder who the top prophet is, doesn’t it?

In some cases even the “camel’s nose” image doesn’t do justice to missionary wiliness. “Trojan Camel” might be better; some Christian missionaries call themselves Muslims — or at least muslims — because, after all, “muslim” literally means one who surrenders to God. A few have gone way undercover, growing beards and abstaining from pork.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose you were a Christian parent in America and you heard that someone who called himself a Christian had bonded with your son via genial Bible talk and then tried to convert him to Islam. That would be annoying, right? Might even lead to some blowback?

I wondered after reading the Times piece whether the disingenuous use of “Allah” by Christians might help explain a recent news item: In Malaysia, Muslims are demanding that non-Muslims not be allowed to use the word “Allah” for God. I consulted my go-to authority on Christian-Muslim tensions around the world, Eliza Griswold (whose book “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam,” is scheduled to come out this fall).

She said tensions between Muslims and Christians in Malaysia are complex and longstanding, but, yes, when Muslims demand exclusive use of the word “Allah,” one source of their pique — and, indeed, their stated motivation — is that Christians sometimes use this linguistic bridge to pull Muslims over to the Christian side of it.

In Nigeria, the battle isn’t so much over the word “Allah,” but there, too, Muslims feel they are victims of cultural aggression. I recently got testimony about this from one of the perpetrators. He is a congenial Pentecostal minister from Nigeria who now drives a New Haven cab that I was riding in last month. (Yes, here comes a cab driver story. I feel like a real columnist now!)

When I asked him how things are in Nigeria, he started complaining about unruly Muslims. (This was weeks before the latest round of killings.) As the conversation continued, I started suspecting that part of the problem was something he’d spent time doing: trying to win Nigerian Muslims for Christ. With no prompting from me, and with evident pride, he said of Pentecostals, “We’re very aggressive.”

Doesn’t this bother the Muslims, I asked? Oh, yes, he said. And do the Muslims try to convert Christians in return? No, he said, “They keep to themselves.”

As this cab driver — a native-born Nigerian — illustrates, the problem isn’t just American missionaries going abroad and trying to leverage the Koran against itself. Depending on the country, Christian proselytizers may be of various nationalities and use various methods.

But whatever form the recruiting takes, it is often perceived by Muslims as cultural aggression — unprovoked aggression, since they’re not generally inclined to proselytize, and serious aggression, since in many Muslim cultures it’s a grave thing for a believer to stray from the fold. And even when American Christians aren’t doing the proselytizing, they’re often supporting it via money that flows from American churches — especially evangelical ones — to outreach programs abroad.

I’m not saying Christians are more to blame than Muslims for the world’s diverse Christian-Muslim tensions. In Nigeria, for example, the intensity of Christian proselytizing comes partly from past persecution by a Muslim majority; the Christians seek safety in numbers, so the bigger their numbers, the better. (Griswold explained this to me, and confirmed that, yes, assertive Christian proselytizing exacerbates tensions in Nigeria.)

Still, even if proselytizing isn’t the prime mover, my guess is that it pretty consistently falls in the “not helpful” category from the point of view of world peace and, ultimately, American security. And some of it — e.g., the “Camel Method” — is particularly antagonistic. Which explains why I’m not a big fan of that first headline, “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics.” Overtures, when effective, don’t heighten tensions.

I’d like to be able to report that the “critics” in this headline are Christians who worry about heightening tensions and so refrain from offensive proselytizing. Alas, they’re Christians who favor assertive proselytizing but are offended by any suggestion that Muslims and Christians might worship the same god. One of them, Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, in Lynchburg, Va., said in a recent podcast, “There’s nothing that the two gods — the god of the Koran and the god of scripture — have in common. Nothing.”

Well, to look at the bright side: Maybe that’s a basis for interfaith rapport; Caner can sit around with Malaysian Muslims and agree that they worship different gods.

Still, I like to think that their gods would beg to differ.

Postscript. If you’re wondering what Muslim scripture says about whether “Allah” and the God of the Bible are the same: By my reading of the Koran, Muhammad does assert (or God asserts through Muhammad, as Muslims would have it) the unity of the Abrahamic God. Indeed, my view is that Muhammad initially got the word “Allah” from Christians, or from both Christians and Jews, and may have seen himself as a kind of Judeo-Christian prophet; he seems at times to be trying to merge Jewish and Christian belief into mutually acceptable doctrine — and to get Arab polytheists to renounce their idolatry and sign on as well. (Even today Arab-speaking Christians and Jews use the word “Allah” for God, and there’s no reason to assume that’s a post-Muhammad development.)

Indeed, the very Koranic passage that practitioners of the Camel Method use to stress Jesus’s wonder-working power conveys Allah’s roots in both the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the New Testament:

When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favor unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead… . [Koran 5:110; Muhammad Pickthall translation]

Interestingly, the reference in that passage to Jesus making a bird of clay and then infusing it with life comes from a gospel that didn’t make it into the Christian canon — the Infancy Gospel of Thomas — and that presumably was circulating among Christians in Muhammad’s milieu. This story gives people like Caner grounds to assert that the Jesus of the Koran and the Jesus of the Bible aren’t the same.

So does the fact that Muhammad, trying to build an emphatically monotheistic religion, denied the doctrine of the Trinity and denied that God could have a son (though he affirmed that Jesus was, as the Gospel of John has it, the “Word” of God and also called him “Messiah”). Still Caner’s claim in the aforementioned podcast that “Muhammad considered the nature of the God in the Bible, rejected it and made one up” is almost certainly a characterization that Muhammad wouldn’t have recognized. Muhammad’s project to build an interfaith community around the biblical God may have been doomed by intellectual tensions between Christian and Jewish belief — and for that matter between strictest monotheism and the Christian doctrine of Jesus’s divinity — but I do think that this was his project.

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