What You Don’t Know About Islam and the “Christian” West

An Excerpt from Fresh Vision for the Muslim World

Editor’s note: The author and his family spent 22 years in France, North Africa and the Middle East, working among Muslims and Christians—learning how the gospel is impacting Islamic communities. These words are an adapted excerpt from his book, Fresh Vision for the Muslim World, published in 2009.

In brief:

  • For long centuries, Muslim peoples of the world enjoyed prominence and power, leaving a heritage of notable cultural contributions to world civilization.
  • Islamic civilization has been in decline in recent centuries. The twentieth century witnessed a drastic decline for the Muslim world as two successive world wars, the birth of Israel, two Gulf wars, and one war in Afghanistan again and again demonstrated the West’s superiority.
  • The Islamic world today is without a clearly appointed leader. That is a sore spot for many Muslims and important for our understanding of the contemporary situation in the Muslim world.
  • The Islamic world has been the object of a continual assault of Western secular media advocating morals and values repulsive to Muslims.
  • September 11 was greeted with street-level euphoria in the Muslim world because Muslims saw in it a ray of hope for an Islamic resurgence.
  • Each new defeat at the hands of the West deepens the Islamic sense of shame and also complicates any hope for peace.

Caliphs, Sunnis, and Shiites

When Muhammad died, the Islamic nation elected to place authority in the hands of a man named Abu Bakr. This man became the first caliph. Caliph is an Arabic word that can be translated as “successor.” Abu Bakr was followed by three others who, together with Abu Bakr, became known by Sunni Muslims (85 percent of the world’s Muslims) as the rightly guided caliphate. Muhammad’s nephew, Ali, was the last of the rightly guided caliphs.

During Ali’s rule a struggle erupted for the caliphate, which spawned the Shiite-Sunni controversy. The leadership of the Islamic community moved to Syria under the Umayyad dynasty (660–750). Later, Islamic civilization reached its zenith in the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad (750–1258). During these epochs Islam was under the guidance of a caliph, a figure who held political and religious authority. Later the caliphate passed into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who held it from 1512 to 1922.

Events of recent times have led to the disappearance of the Islamic caliphate. Most Westerners do not understand the gravity of that fact. The caliph could be compared to the Roman Catholic pope in terms of his prestige and authority. He was not merely a religious authority. He acted as head of state and was the unifying image of the far-flung world of Islam, referred to in Arabic as the umma (nation) of Islam.

Shiites, however, continue to have a different perspective on the caliphate. In brief, their belief is that the leadership of the Islamic nation should remain in the family of Muhammad. Therefore they recognize only Muhammad’s nephew Ali (the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs) as the legitimate successor of the prophet. Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, were both killed at war. In the battle of Karbala (680 CE), seventy of Ali’s family were brutally killed in war against the Umayyad rulers. A succession of eleven imams (leaders of the Islamic community, deemed to be successors of Muhammad) followed them as rulers. The twelfth imam strangely disappeared, and Shiites await his reappearance as the ruler of the Islamic nation.

The Effects of World Wars I and II

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni caliphate passed over to Istanbul and remained until the end of World War I. Turkey was on the losing side in World War I. The end of the war signaled the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Its constituent parts were parceled out by the victors of that war, the Allied powers:

  • France had already established colonies in the North African countries of Morocco (1912), Algeria (1830), and Tunisia (1881).
  • Italy set up its establishment in Libya (1911)
  • The British controlled Egypt (1882)

After World War I, Western domination extended its reach, with France taking power in Lebanon and Syria and Great Britain in control of Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan.

With the end of World War I and Attaturk’s establishment of Turkey as a secular state (1924), the thirteen-hundred-year-old establishment known as the caliphate ended. The icon of the once powerful Sunni Muslim world simply was no more. It did not merely disappear; it was vanquished by the Allied powers, which proceeded to place its nation-states in subjection. Those Allied powers were Christian Europe!

With the end of World War I and Attaturk’s establishment of Turkey as a secular state (1924), the thirteen-hundred-year-old establishment known as the caliphate ended. The icon of the once powerful Sunni Muslim world simply was no more. It did not merely disappear; it was vanquished by the Allied powers, which proceeded to place its nation-states in subjection. Those Allied powers were Christian Europe!

Although World War I was of a vastly different nature from the Crusades, to Muslims it had the same effect. It brought Islamic territory under subjection to Christian nations. This incredible turn of events pronounced the verdict of history that Islamic civilization was in decline, that the Islamic world no longer held power, and that the Christian West was in a position of superiority. For modern day Muslims it also illustrates the territorial aspirations of Western (Christian) nations that used their position of authority and military supremacy to rule Islamic territory.

While Europe tended to view itself as the protectors and administrators of these Muslim nations, the nations themselves most often took the perspective that the intruders were also exploiters. One by one, these nations cast off European domination. In some cases the Europeans ceded power willingly. In other cases wars of independence were fought.

During World War II, the Muslim world was in a weakened position; its primary role was that of battlefield. The most poignant result of World War II for our purposes is the establishment of Israel in 1948. (Rather than delve into that subject now, let’s finish our historic survey. Israel deserves special attention in subsequent chapters.)

Afghanistan and Iraq

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the long incursion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan (1979–89) for Muslim peoples. A combination of Saudi oil money, U.S. military technology, and Islamic zeal handed the former Soviet Union its own Vietnam and resurrected a ray of hope for Islamists (The Clash of Civilizations, 247).

While Americans viewed Afghanistan as a Cold War victory, Muslims viewed it as a victory for Islam. After all, they had recruited the manpower from Afghanistan and the Arab world to fend off one of the world’s two superpowers. In the process jihad demonstrated its viability, giving birth to an elaborate system of training guerrilla fighters through camps that combined Islamic piety with military maneuvers. After the Afghan war jihadists returned to their countries having experienced the power of the Islamic cause and fueled with a passion to cast the foreigner out of Muslim lands.

During this conflict, the United States provided arms and training to the Islamists—the forerunners of today’s al Qaeda. I suspect that the U.S. administration was confident that its initiatives toward bin Laden and other Middle Eastern states would be recognized as benevolent. After all, they sought to repulse a territorial invasion by the Soviets.

However, from the perspective of many Muslims, the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its military presence in the Arabian Peninsula are equally as pernicious as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The American objective is to further its own economic interests through the establishment of a free-market economy—which Americans see as a great service to the Middle East. To Middle Easterners, however, this smacks of self-service and economic strong-arming of a vulnerable Muslim state with limited resources. Arabs often suspect the United States of a new kind of imperialism—economic imperialism. Bin Laden’s fatwas (religious edicts) voice these suspicions, as do the Arab media.

I am neither defending the United States nor lending credence to charges of imperialism leveled at our country. I merely point out that what we assume to be benevolence is most often received as belligerence. The victory of bin Laden’s mujahideen (guerrilla fighters) over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan has won a lasting admiration from many Muslims. Small wonder that the ideology of jihad seems to be spreading like wildfire through the Muslim world.

Gulf War I

The early 1990s witnessed a direct military intervention of the United States in an Arab Muslim land—the liberation of Kuwait from the occupation of Saddam Hussein’s forces. Surely, this was an opportunity for the United States to prove its goodwill by coming to the aid of a weak and needy Muslim nation. Great effort was expended to build a coalition including many Arab nations, some of which sent token troops into the conflict.

Yet, there was significant Muslim resistance to the U.S. intervention from the outset. Respected allies such as Jordan and Tunisia refused to lend support to the war effort. Some of the nations that entered the coalition later gave only qualified support. Many voiced their opinion that Saddam was clearly wrong to invade a neighboring Muslim state but that the United States was not justified in its attempt to bring resolution—this was an in-house situation and needed an inter-Arab solution.

In the end Gulf War I only compounded suspicion and antagonism toward the United States. The nail in the coffin of Arab and Muslim sentiment toward the United States was that the holy land of Saudi Arabia was used as a staging platform for the aggression against Iraq. America’s war would be waged against the flower of bygone Islamic greatness—Baghdad—from the land of the Prophet’s birth and Islam’s inception. The foreign invasion could not have been more ill-conceived, shameful, ignominious. Benevolence was received as belligerence yet again.

The nail in the coffin of Arab and Muslim sentiment toward the United States was that the holy land of Saudi Arabia was used as a staging platform for the aggression against Iraq. America’s war would be waged against the flower of bygone Islamic greatness—Baghdad—from the land of the Prophet’s birth and Islam’s inception. The foreign invasion could not have been more ill-conceived, shameful, ignominious. Benevolence was received as belligerence yet again.

As I reflect over my sojourn in the Middle East, the Gulf War was the first occasion I recall experiencing overt antagonism due to my being American. No one I knew was particularly fond of Saddam Hussein, and many would have been happy to see him removed from power. However, there was near universal suspicion that the United States was acting only to secure its own interests. The motivation of benevolence toward tiny Kuwait rang hollow in the Muslim world. The importance of Middle Eastern oil to the national interests of the United States is no secret. The United States, in the eyes of many Arabs, simply could not afford the risk that the oil-laden country of Kuwait would fall into the hands of a tyrant with aspirations to overrun other oil-rich countries. Once again, what most Americans saw as a gesture of nobility was perceived by Middle Easterners to be a fat and spoiled rich kid grabbing the last chicken leg at a picnic and trampling over a dignified grandmother to do it! Of all the Arab countries, only Kuwait remains grateful for the intervention.

Muslim Reaction to 9/11

What I say here can never mollify the horrific evil that was done on September 11, 2001 to thousands of American families as well as many guests living in our country. In no way do I wish to make light of that event or cast it in such a way as to exonerate the murderers. Please understand that is not my desire. I will attempt to portray some of the emotions displayed by Muslims in response to that day and also to give my analysis of that display.

9/11 blew the lid off the boiling pot of relations between the Islamic East and the Christian West. It must be said that some Middle Easterners were horrified at what transpired. I certainly found that to be the case in the Arab Christian church. Our family received calls expressing condolences from some of our neighbors and friends. Some were Muslim. Many were Christian. But in the minds of many Muslims, 9/11 was the revenge of Allah paid out to his enemies. You ask, revenge for what? For things described in this chapter as well as for American support of Israel.

In the modern era, Muslim countries have been shamefully defeated by the West. Both world wars saw massive losses by Muslims. Four successive wars with Israel have demonstrated Israeli military superiority—a superiority Israel has taken from its Western allies, especially the United States. An incursion into Iraq by a coalition of primarily Western nations proved that even the most resilient of Arab rulers and armies could not stand up against the magnificent U.S. military machine.

At the end of the twentieth century, the Muslim nations of the world were down for the count. The only point of light on the Islamic horizon was a group of young mujahideen in Afghanistan, originating from all over the Muslim world and led by a fearless Saudi Arabian who managed to use Saudi money and American military technology to fend off a superpower. Usama bin Laden had demonstrated that Allah’s wars fought in Allah’s way would never lack Allah’s blessing. Afghanistan remained a Muslim nation.

Immoral and Materialistic Western Media

A further irritant is the constant assault of Western media on the eyes and ears of Muslim peoples through the Internet, satellite television, and print media. The siren call of Hollywood in Muslim societies purveys immorality and Western materialism in a society that is supremely God conscious and often materially deprived. Numerous times I have listened to Muslim friends’ tirades about the deluge of immorality, pornography, and materialism coming from the West. Typically my response is to gently point out that impurity can come to rest only in hearts that are receptive to it—human hearts, whether Western or Eastern. Certainly the Middle East, though typically a more conservative society, has its share of vices. Nevertheless, the common perception in the Muslim world is that licentious media find their source in the West.

Would it not be only reasonable that the jihadists—the warriors of Islam—would make the situation right, restoring the splendor of the Islamic state and establishing Islamic morality? Usama bin Laden had demonstrated the force of jihad in Afghanistan. Now his religious zeal turned on his onetime ally. In a daredevil attempt to restore some sense of honor to a defeated and dejected Muslim world, bin Laden ordered his jihadists to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Their effect exceeded all hopes and dreams. The mighty bastions of capitalism—symbols of American economic superiority—fell to the ground in a burst of flame. The collapse of the twin towers as well as the damage inflicted on the Pentagon brought an immediate surge of hope to Muslims that their civilization would live again. I believe that Usama bin Laden’s message to the Muslim world was, “If we fight as Allah would have us fight, we will prevail against any foe”—for many Muslims a convincing message.

The collapse of the twin towers as well as the damage inflicted on the Pentagon brought an immediate surge of hope to Muslims that their civilization would live again. I believe that Usama bin Laden’s message to the Muslim world was, “If we fight as Allah would have us fight, we will prevail against any foe”—for many Muslims a convincing message.

Personal Faith is Only Half of It

Islam is often misread by non-Muslims to refer to a religious belief, one that is largely internal and personal. While this is true, it is a half-truth. The personal-faith aspect of Islam finds a clear parallel in Christianity and is therefore understandable for most Western Christians. However, there is further dimension of Islam—that of a state—that is misunderstood by non-Muslims as it is quite unfamiliar to them.

In this sense, the word Islam has “two related but distinct meanings, as the equivalents both of Christianity and of Christendom” (The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, 4). In this worldview of a religious state, borders are recognizable and territorial. Armies are the means of defense of those borders. Funds are collected for the support of religious purposes. Finally, defense of the religious state takes on an overwhelming importance. That defense, in Islam, is known as jihad.

The word jihad means “struggle or striving.” It was the term most often used to depict Muhammad’s armed struggle to establish Islam. Muhammad and the caliphs who succeeded him believed in the validity of jihad to establish Islam in the world.

This explains in part the sense of euphoria in the Muslim world as a street-level reaction when the towers fell on September 11, 2001. Jihad had won a great victory. While the hope of reversing the centuries-long decline in Islamic prestige and power remained elusive, many Muslims perceived a jihad-like breakthrough in 9/11. It was a strike back at Western superiority and belligerence.

While the hope of reversing the centuries-long decline in Islamic prestige and power remained elusive, many Muslims perceived a jihad-like breakthrough in 9/11. It was a strike back at Western superiority and belligerence.

Al Qaeda had resurrected jihad and taken the victory. Perhaps what followed would be a brighter day for Islam. As for the infidels, could 9/11 be the twilight of their day of supremacy giving way to a dawn of descent? This major blow to the American economic goliath gave hope, though little assurance. The superiority of Islam, eclipsed as it was in the twentieth century, could reemerge in the twenty-first century led by the vanguard of the mujahideen. That hope has yet to be snuffed out.

The attack on the prized icon of American capitalism brought a swift response from the American military machine. Afghanistan, one of the poorest of the world’s countries, would endure the rage of a smitten superpower. The Taliban were ousted and power handed to a new Afghan leadership. An Islamic stronghold fell swiftly and was occupied by the foreign infidels. The mujahideen were dispersed. It’s anyone’s guess where they ended up after the war in Afghanistan. What is sure is that they later made their way into Iraq to carry on their resistance to American superiority.

Gulf War II

If the first Gulf War drew only halfhearted support from a few Muslim countries, the second Gulf War would be actively opposed by the Muslim world. While many Muslim countries saw a real threat in weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, no Arab country viewed Saddam in the same category as the Taliban and Usama bin Laden. Saddam was well known throughout the Arab world as a Baathist—a left-leaning tyrant who had exploited religion when it suited him but had little use for fundamentalist Islam.

Many of my Muslim friends saw Gulf War II as the American president’s vendetta for the attempt on his father’s life and a desire to capture Baghdad as the prize of his presidential legacy. The swift incursion into Iraq that saw Baghdad fall in a matter of weeks was no surprise to the nations of the Muslim world. Arabs chuckled along with the rest of the world as the Iraqi general emphatically declared that Baghdad was not under foreign occupation while CNN showed American tanks rumbling through Baghdad streets even as the general spoke. But it was an embarrassed laugh.

I can’t forget the embarrassment to the Arab and Muslim peoples as Saddam appeared for the first time in public, unshaven and disheveled, his mouth wide open as a dentist inspected his teeth. It was a degrading scene for the deposed statesman, and I believe it symbolized the way many Muslims saw their own society. Once they were strong, very strong. Now the emperor had no clothes. The reality was only too painful. There was no dignity, no honor, no Muslim nation.

Abu Ghurayb the Rape and Murder of Abeer

Need we mention Abu Ghurayb? Those soldiers were punished quickly and thoroughly for their behavior—I suppose. However, if you think the punishment inflicted on those soldiers somehow expunged the horrific shame of what transpired, think again. As Westerners we tend to think in categories of right and wrong. Wrong is punished. Right is rewarded. Fine. Most Muslim societies have a different way of viewing the world, which has been called shame-honor. There is great incentive to avoid shame, and the ultimate good is to bring honor on yourself, your family, your clan, your country. The Abu Ghurayb debacle was shame personified. Arab families watched in horror as female soldiers in American military garb were shown exploiting the nudity of the men who had represented the vanguard of Muslim and Arab resistance.

As Westerners we tend to think in categories of right and wrong. Wrong is punished. Right is rewarded. Fine. Most Muslim societies have a different way of viewing the world, which has been called shame-honor. There is great incentive to avoid shame, and the ultimate good is to bring honor on yourself, your family, your clan, your country. The Abu Ghurayb debacle was shame personified.

Elsewhere—near Mahmoudiya, Iraq—American soldiers watched from their checkpoint station as a fourteen-year-old girl tended the family garden and carried out her chores at her home about two hundred meters from the checkpoint. Because of security risks, her father had refused to let young Abeer go to school. On March 12, 2006, the soldiers changed into black civilian clothing and entered Abeer’s house. Her parents and younger sister were taken into a separate room and murdered. Abeer was raped repeatedly by three soldiers. She was shot by one of the soldiers after their brutal deed was complete. The soldiers proceeded to set the house on fire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmudiyah_rape_and_killings).

I’m sure no sane person would fail to be moved to disgust and pity by the account of Abeer’s rape and murder. However, for Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims, the incident becomes symbolic of American disregard of cultural and religious values. The event takes on collective significance as Abeer’s innocence and beauty are set in stark contrast to the evil intentions of her attackers. The shame of rape and murder can never be absorbed by declarations that the guilty will be punished. In the minds of Muslims, the rape of Abeer is tantamount to the rape of Iraq. To say such a thing goes against my love of country and sense of propriety, but I believe it to be an accurate depiction of the way many Middle Easterners view the presence of American troops in Iraq and other countries.

I must add a side note. I hold the men and women of the U. S. armed forces in high regard. My dad is a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War. I honor his sacrifice and the sacrifice of thousands who have paid the ultimate price to provide me and my family a secure and prosperous society where I am free to express my own opinions and follow my dreams. Furthermore, I know that the vast majority of the American soldiers in Iraq have conducted themselves in an honorable fashion. I honor them. Furthermore, many American soldiers have made a serious effort to cross the cultural divide and befriend Iraqis. The dignity of all these soldiers stands in stark contrast to the ignominy of Abu Ghurayb and the rape and murder of Abeer.

The fact remains that Gulf War II, from a Muslim perspective, epitomized the relentless pursuit of the West to dominate the East. As such, it attracted an insurgency wreaking havoc even today in Iraq. Make no mistake, Muslims are looking on the U.S. presence in Iraq with ever-increasing suspicion. Even the most intransigent U.S. leaders are beginning to suggest that democracy in the Muslim world will look different than it does in the West. And so it does.

Seeking Fresh Vision

We are seeking to find fresh vision for the Muslim world. Fresh vision begins with a look backward. We need some sense of the complex history of the Muslim world and the involvement of the “Christian” West in it.

No doubt you can see that Muslims also have a particular vision or perspective of you as a Westerner. Whether you like it or not, you carry baggage—the baggage of the West. You are seen as a military vanquisher whether or not you wish to be. You are guilty by virtue of association with your own culture, which rightly or wrongly is perceived to be engaged in undying exploitation of the Muslim world.

I hope you are also beginning to see why the Muslim world is striking back at anything Western. You say, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to be seen that way. I don’t like this.” Nor do I. Yet this is the reality of the Muslim world. I discovered it while I lived there, and you will too if you opt for incarnation as opposed to confrontation as a response to the Muslim world.

I hope you are also beginning to see why the Muslim world is striking back at anything Western. You say, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to be seen that way. I don’t like this.” Nor do I. Yet this is the reality of the Muslim world. I discovered it while I lived there, and you will too if you opt for incarnation as opposed to confrontation as a response to the Muslim world.

Viewing ourselves through others’ eyes is absolutely essential. Our own self-perception is radically different from how we are perceived by others. Yet to understand how others perceive us is, I believe, the first step in communication and incarnation.


Adapted from Fresh Vision for the Muslim World by Mike Kuhn. Copyright (c) 2009 by Mike Kuhn. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

More Resources

Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam
What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
The Messenger, the Message and the Community

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