By T.R. Robertson
For Christians who seek to chart a path down the radical center of a hostile culture, the road can be rocky. There are others navigating a parallel route, fellow travelers whose experiences are instructive.
In response, Dr. Fuad Nahdi, editor in chief of Q-News, a leading international Muslim magazine, formed an organization called Radical Middle Way (RMW). His purpose was to use modern strategic communication methods to promote acceptance of a nonextremist version of Islam.
As RMW’s website explains it, “Most of the discussion about Islam is held in a context of extremism on both sides. So actually to be moderate, to be in the middle, is radical because it’s different from the perceived notion around us.”
RMW sponsors conferences, workshops, training, multimedia, and online projects, all designed “to create more open, engaged and merciful communities.”
Essentially, it is about how faith is a force for making our communities and society more civilized, human, respectful and harmonious. It is about “enjoining good and forbidding evil,” identifying and advocating shared universal values, and working towards mutual understanding.1
In November 2014, Nahdi became the first Muslim to address the General Synod of the Church of England. On the day of that address, he wrote in The Guardian,
We must be convinced that the issue is not too much religion, but too little good religion. And the criminals out there need to be perceived and treated just like other criminals.
The task is awesome, but we should not be afraid of our duty to be bridge-builders and peacemakers. To do this effectively, we should dig deep in the teachings of our faiths on justice, compassion, courage, patience and respect.2
It sounds like a breath of fresh air amid the rancor and tension that characterizes much of the talk about Islam. It also sounds much like the goals of their Christian counterparts who want to move beyond “the elementary truths of God’s word” (Hebrews 5:12) and live out God’s righteousness in the public square.
There are, of course, skeptics. RMW has stirred up critics, alarmed citizens, and outraged protectors of the faith (both Islam and Christian, as well as Jewish), many who are convinced all Islam is extremist.
Concerned Christians can read more about the Radical Middle Way at radicalmiddleway.org and can draw their own conclusions about the organization’s activities and motives. But whatever our conclusions, we can all learn some cautionary lessons from the experiences of RMW.
Guilt by Association
Some suspect RMW of being a cover for subversive terrorist activities. Critics point to RMW’s connections with some of their speakers and supporters who have spoken and written in favor of exporting stringent sharia law to the West. Others have connections with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial group.
In their defense, RMW says their purpose is to promote the free exchange of ideas, a radical concept itself in the authoritarian world of Islam. Open dialogue, by its nature, means not every event participant will necessarily follow the Radical Middle Way script.
In the eyes of critics, RMW’s rhetoric about freedom of speech is trumped by the stain of guilt by association. The organization has distanced itself from some of the more controversial voices among their stable of speakers.
Christians who are slow to distance themselves from extremist Christian groups can also expect criticism.
Every time a Christian says, “I don’t agree with the actions of the Westboro Baptist protesters or of people who bomb abortion clinics, but I sympathize with their righteous anger over sin,” suspicion and censure will come their way. Christians who want to speak their faith into the culture will find their message obscured if the world thinks they are embracing or making excuses for fellow believers who spout Christianized hate.
Within our own ranks we understand the need for patience and tolerance, the importance of open dialogue. In the Internet age, when nothing is ever said in private, the outside world will always have a less accommodating view.
Entanglement with Politics
Following the 7/7 bombings, the United Kingdom’s Parliament pushed through what became known as the “Prevent” agenda, a propaganda campaign designed to promote a more moderate approach among the Muslim community in Britain, as part of their “soft schemes” to combat terrorism.
The birth of RMW not only coincided with the genesis of Prevent, it reportedly received more than £1.2 million from the government’s Prevent budget from 2005 to 2007. When the British media discovered and reported this, the revelation provoked negative reactions from several directions.
Stephen F. Jones, in the journal Religions, quotes from an interview with one of RMW’s own speakers “who observed that by taking public funding, organizations such as RMW risk being ‘generically discredited’ because ‘everyone assumes that point of view is being pushed for political reasons by the same politicians that support Israel and smashed up Iraq.’”3
RMW responded by backing away from government funding.
In America, government funding of faith-based programs has increased since the Clinton and Bush administrations. Critics of the initiative have questioned its constitutionality, but the reaction to the subsidized work of religious organizations has mostly been positive. Spending those public monies on social services, rather than on “propaganda,” has won over many who were skeptical.
More damaging to the reputation of the church in America has been its entanglement in politics.
Many outside the church equate Evangelical with Republican. The media’s emphasis on the political activities of Christians rather than their benevolent activities is partially to blame. But individual believers contribute to this perception by being eager to debate politics with their neighbors and coworkers, while being oddly hesitant to talk about the love of Christ or God’s grace.
It’s no wonder the outside world mistrusts the motives of the church.
Resistance to the Idea of Moderate Religion
Many fellow Muslims have objected to RWM, saying moderate religion is compromised religion. Sam Harris, neuroscientist and outspoken atheist, shares their mistrust of “moderate religion.”
“As it turns out,” he says, “it matters if a person believes that the Koran literally emanated from the Creator of the universe. This belief is genuinely incompatible with religious moderation.”4
Christians who seek the radical middle will come up against the same sort of resistance, from both inside the church and out.
When Christians speak of a culture war, we bolster the fears of people who see all religion as dangerous.
Many Christians point fingers at Islam, speaking confidently of violence being at the core of the teachings of the Koran. They should realize the same assertion can be convincingly made about Christianity, based in large part upon Old Testament violence. No matter how much we provide theological explanations for the wrathful God of the Old Testament, to outsiders we sound no different than apologists for the Koran’s violence.
Reframing the gospel message for modern ears will go only so far. Many will still see it as extremist. Jesus is a stumbling block (1 Peter 2:7, 8) precisely because his way isn’t the way of the world’s middle ground.
Jesus warned that the world would hate his disciples, precisely because we claim him as our authority. The world hated Jesus because he claimed the Father as his authority (John 15:18-25). The very idea of some absolute authority disqualifies the church from being considered moderate in the eyes of those who worship autonomy.
Returning to Roots
According to Nahdi, RMW’s goal is not to reinvent the wheel.
The idea is to find within the genius of Islam—in 1,400 years of history—what works. Mainstream Islam—based on nonviolence, on a sense of justice, on a sense of honesty, on a sense of fairness—is something that has developed over centuries in Islam.5
Both those inside and outside of Islam can and do argue over whether the roots of Islam are as RMW paints them.
The concept of returning to roots is key, though, to presenting the world with a clearer, less misunderstood image of Christianity.
The word radical derives from radix, which means “root.” Restoring Christianity to its roots in the ways of Jesus, the “Root of Jesse,” is the only true way to be both radical and avoid the extremes that come from “bitter roots” (Hebrews 12:15).
The best way Christian leaders can impact the culture is by challenging their congregations to develop a zeal for all biblical truths. Clinging to nonnegotiable doctrines at the core of Christianity will always cause some outsiders to stumble. But the church also needs to be fired up, to be salt and light in their communities, injecting the equally nonnegotiable biblical truths of love, compassion, and faithfulness into the culture.
2 Fuad Nahdi, “Christians and Muslims Have Co-Existed Peacefully Before and Must Do So Again,” The Guardian, November 18, 2014; accessed at www.theguardian.com.
3 Religions, November 4, 2013.
4 Sam Harris, “Who Are the Moderate Muslims?” The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011, accessed at www.huffingtonpost.com.
5 “Interview with Fuad Nahdi,” Frontline World, October 2006, accessed at www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/canada602/interview_nahdi.html.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.