BACKSTORY | On secular Muslims, political Islam, and making friends
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Jill Nelson’s fascination with Arab culture dates all the way back to her college days, when she studied for a semester in Egypt and completed a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. During the last 18 years, she’s written extensively about the Middle East and issues related to Islam. Her reporting assignments have taken her to Arabic-speaking churches, inside a mosque, and into the homes of Afghan immigrants living in Southern California. Through her connections in the community, she learned about the growing trend of Muslims coming to faith in Jesus. You can read about it in “Seeking a savior” in this issue. I asked her to share a bit more about what she learned while reporting this story.
What do you think most Americans would be surprised to learn about people who come from Muslim-majority countries, or grew up in Muslim culture? Although Islamist mosques and organizations do exist in the United States, most Muslims are nominal in their faith. Even among the religious Muslims I know, their top concerns often mirror ours. How do I parent rebellious children? What can I do about my school district’s troubling agenda? They often don’t know where to turn for answers, and these are opportunities to both share our own struggles and offer support.
Did you learn anything that surprised you as you worked on this story? Several people told me imams in the United States are starting to become more open. I think this trend matches what we are seeing among American Muslims in general—a desire to modernize Islam. I was also surprised by the number of American Christians from a Muslim background who credit part of their conversion process to a dream about Jesus.
What about Muslim efforts to convert Americans? Most conversions to Islam are happening among African Americans in the prison system, but one ministry leader told me Latinos are the fastest-growing group of converts. Muslims are projected to make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, but political Islam is still cause for concern. The Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Student Association are among the organizations trying to win over Muslims and non-Muslims to Islamism, a political interpretation that believes Islamic law should play a central role in public life.
What are the cultural differences that come into play when interacting with Muslims? One ministry leader said his Middle Eastern culture does not easily forgive, so the gospel message of forgiveness is a radical concept. Discipleship is often necessary among immigrant groups to reframe cultural assumptions about family life, and community is typically far more important in their culture than our own.
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