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War of the centuries

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This year Sept. 11 came right in the middle of Ramadan, the month of daylight fasting for Muslims. Booked to fly out of New York's JFK airport on the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, I could expect a business-as-usual tone, and why not: War in Iraq and economy troubles at home have drastically affected some of us, but many Americans have had seven fat years since the shock of 9/11.

With memories of horror fading, the Empire State Building—thanks to Islamic terrorists it moved up from third to first place in the list of Gotham's tallest buildings—is scheduled at the end of this month to light up green to honor Islam: Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, begins in North America on the evening of Sept. 30.

The ESB's light-up is ironic but not evil. It merely means that Americans don't tend to be imprisoned in the past, as many in the Middle East are. Many Muslim Shiites still stoke their anger about a dispute in 680 a.d. that led to the death of the man they claim was Islam's rightful leader. America's mediocre national memory can be an advantage when we keep no record of wrongs, but we need to understand those who do.

To many Muslims 9/11 was part of the yo-yo story line of the past 14 centuries. Their perspective begins with Islam's seventh-century advance in western Asia and northern Africa. Then came a Christian (using the word loosely) counterattack via the Crusades and in Spain. Centuries later came a Muslim counterattack through Constantinople and all the way to the walls of Vienna.

Meanwhile, Muslims were picking up eastern adherents in lands now called Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and Christians began a flanking movement through voyages of exploration and imperialism. Competition continued into the 20th century, when Christians garnered adherents in the Americas and Africa—but Allah gave Muslims an edge by giving them lots of oil (after Americans first made it into something of importance).

"Christians" have now counterattacked in Iraq and Afghanistan, but may have overextended in the process. In America we expect wars to end quickly, and a "Hundred Year War" sounds slightly ridiculous—but what about a 1,400-year war? Seven years without another Islamic terrorist attack in the United States? That's like a day in the eye of radical Islam.

The Bible is not like the Quran. Sure, several Old Testament passages call for killing those in the path of conquest, but those are descriptive historical accounts related to the conquest of Canaan over 3,000 years ago, not open-ended prescriptions for current conduct. The Quran, though, has over 100 prescriptive statements like Sura (chapter) 3:151, "We shall put terror into the hearts of unbelievers"; or 9:123, "Fight the unbelievers who are near to you"; or 47:4, "When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks."

The good news is that the Quran has nearly 100 references to Jesus ("Isa" in Arabic). If Muslims go beyond the Quran to find out more about Isa, and if patient and respectful Christians have the opportunity to teach about Him, the world will change. Sura 5:51 says, "Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for friends." Therein lies a key difference in understanding history: Christians should take Muslims for friends. Christians should have neither a centuries-old memory for wrongs nor a designation of some people as enemies, because God can change them into friends.

That's why our chief foreign policy objective for the Middle East should not be democracy but liberty, particularly the liberty to talk about Isa and show Muslims where they can read much more about Him. We need to understand Muslim views of history and not fall into them, as we do when we start talking about inevitable clashes of civilizations.

The real clash is within each individual, and that makes our current conflict not a World War IV but something more like World War I, a tragic war that could have been avoided had arrogance not been in the saddle, riding mankind. We need to pray that God will somehow break through to teach more Muslims the gospel of grace—and that He'll school more Christians to live by that gospel.

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