During a Muslim-Christian peacemaking meeting in Indonesia in 2003, Mesach Krisetya, president of Mennonite World Conference, made a speech. Seeking to dismantle negative stereotypes of Christians — especially concerning U.S. military intervention in Muslim-majority countries — he observed that Mennonites in the United States had collected more than 10,000 signatures urging President Bush not to invade Iraq.
Muslims in the crowd were shocked to hear U.S. Christians would oppose their nation’s war.
This story comes from a remarkable book, The Radical Muslim and Mennonite: A Muslim-Christian Encounter for Peace in Indonesia. The book introduces us to a radical militant Islamic group in Indonesia — Hizbullah, or “army of God” — and, in doing so, helps us to do something important: see the world through Muslim eyes. (This Indonesian Sunni group is apparently unrelated to the more famous Lebanese Shia group with a similar name.)
The writers, both Indonesian Mennonite pastors, recount a “long but fruitful journey” of Indonesian Mennonites forming relationships with Hizbullah, “one of the most formidable and intolerant Islamic paramilitary groups in Indonesia.” This encounter between two religious groups — each “radical” in its own way — began in the mid-1990s, when Pastor Paulus Hartono resolved that his church would be known as an agent of reconciliation. He and other Mennonite peacemakers took risks to transform hatred and fear in Solo, “a city stricken with religious and sectarian tension.”
One of the most important things we learn from seeing the world from a Muslim perspective is that many of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world fear the Christian West. A significant part of that fear can be traced to colonialism: When Spanish and Portuguese colonists arrived in Indonesia they brought “the spirit of the ‘Three Ms’: Merchant, Military and Missionary,” Suyanto and Hartono write. “. . . It was not surprising that the arrival of European colonialism and Christianity aroused deep suspicion from the existing Muslim communities, as though another crusade was waged against Islamic kingdoms and nations.”
Looking at the world through Muslim eyes, we learn many Muslims are angry at and afraid of U.S. Christians because of the military actions of the U.S. government in recent decades and today. Groups like Hizbullah “fiercely oppose Western political and military intervention in Muslim-majority countries.”
Tragically, this suspicion of Christians extends to Christian minorities in Indonesia, where many Muslims suspect a close association between Christians and American imperialism. U.S. support to Israel in “dominating the Holy Land” is another source of outrage.
This anger — sometimes coupled with economic insecurity — has driven a small minority of militant Islamic groups to react with actions ranging from protesting a concert by the singer Lady Gaga in Jakarta to “bombing several churches and Western hot spots across Indonesia.”
Yet there are signs of hope. The Radical Muslim and Mennonite reminds us that people, including radical Islamists, can change. In a peacemaking effort of reaching out to Hizbullah, Hartono initiated a “dialogue of action,” engaging with another faith community to serve the common good.
Mennonites and Hizbullah began cooperating to deliver humanitarian relief to victims of a devastating tsunami in 2004, among other projects. Despite tense moments, they found their way to mutual respect and cooperation. They even talked theology.
We learn that Islam, when rightly understood and practiced, does not wish to harm, let alone kill, Christians. Citing the Prophet Mohammed’s teaching, Hizbullah commander Yanni Rusmanto — a man with a “militant Islamic upbringing,” the authors say — “has found theological grounding to engage with other religious communities. He advocates that the Quran teaches Muslims to live peacefully with non-Muslims who do not threaten the existence of Islam.”
Mennonite Central Committee played a key part in that dialogue. Three MCC staff members wrote comments accompanying the book.
The book reminds us of the need to work for peaceful interfaith relationships. We can engage in a “dialogue of action” — works of compassion with our neighbors — as the Indonesian Mennonites and Muslims did. This Thanksgiving, why not organize a dinner for the homeless with a mosque in your vicinity?
The Radical Muslim and Mennonite is available from Faith and Life Bookstore in Newton, Kan., 316-283-2210, for $12.99 plus $4 shipping; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mel Lehman directs Common Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in New York that seeks to build understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world.